If you want to boost productivity and engagement, micromanagement is not the answer
By SANDY CLARKE
There are literally hundreds of definitions of what makes a great leader, due to the many factors that combine to create effective leadership as well as the unique personalities of leaders themselves.
When we think of leadership, there are many questions that arise.
Why is this person an effective leader? Who sets the standard? In what ways are they good leaders? How do they manifest the qualities of leadership that inspire so many to follow their vision?
We could all engage in lengthy discussions about the qualities and traits that make someone a great leader, and whether leadership is an innate quality within a chosen few, or whether it can be nurtured through training and development.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes someone a leader, most of us will likely be able to give concrete definitions of what makes for an ineffective leader or ‘bad boss’.
Perhaps some of you will have worked with a boss who prefers a rigid style of management, which minimises the opportunity of valuable input from members of the team. Maybe a former boss adopted the spirit of ruling by fear and intimidation.
In some cases, employees may find themselves with a boss who simply lacks the ability or inclination to communicate their ideas well and often.
Often, one particular trait sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to bosses and ineffective leadership: micromanagement. Many of us know the type.
Micromanagers are bosses who are constantly looking over our shoulders, pressing for updates and making sure we perform tasks to their exact standards. This, they believe, drives productivity and inspires motivation.
Pitfalls of micromanagement
Recent psychological research by the likes of Professor Richard Boyatzis suggests that leaders manage teams either by implementing Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA) or Negative Emotional Attractors (NEA).
Leaders who inclined towards using NEA are those who tell others what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. They are the micromanagers, and offer members of their team little or no input into their process.
Further, any feedback offered is likely to be negative and without substance (e.g. “You didn’t complete that task quickly enough – get it done quicker next time”).
Coaching for compliance (i.e. using NEA) has limited benefit in today’s workplace. In primitive times, NEAs ensured our survival as a species.
They helped us to understand that we should keep our distance from the hungry beast making its way towards us. Had we decided all the poor thing needed was some love and a hug, we wouldn’t have got very far.
Using NEA in the workplace can be used to jolt members of the team into taking swift action and, if the leader is feared, employees will toe the line – for a time – in order to complete the required tasks. As employees, we like to keep hold of our jobs (i.e. survive).
In the long term, however, a leadership style that prefers NEA to PEA will cultivate a team of people who will do enough to get the job done, but whose motivation, passion and commitment to their role will quickly diminish.
Examples of the ill effects of NEA-style leadership can be seen in some contact centres. In the United Kingdom, many centres see a regular high turnover of staff due to a pressurised working environment.
In 2012, the trade union Unison warned that health problems are rife among those who work in contact centres, thanks to target-driven, restrictive management practices that heap pressure on customer service representatives.
Having worked as a journalist, I’ve come across one or two micromanaging editors. Newsrooms, when managed well, will likely be environments where fresh ideas are conceived on a regular basis.
People will discuss stories and features, and they will learn and develop through the sharing of ideas and best practices.
Conversely, when newsrooms are micromanaged, just like in any workplace, morale will be low, and there will be a lack in motivation to do the job well (just well enough to ‘survive’). Where there should be passion and drive, there will be a sense of deflation and stagnation instead.
There will also be little-to-no commitment to the leader or the organisation itself. When this kind of culture is cultivated, it can be almost impossible to reverse. Micromanaging, therefore, greatly reduces productivity as opposed to increasing it.
Leadership in action
The entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, once said:
“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.”
This challenge can, on first reading, seem like quite a mountain to climb. We might think that working on achieving the balances that Rohn describes is unachievable or, at the very least, impossible without a lot of hard work and effort on our part.
But the reality is that Rohn’s leadership challenge is easily met if we are able to develop one quality when engaging with others: the ability to connect.
The best leader I have ever worked for was, surprisingly, during my time as a student when I worked in a ‘dead-end’ job in a major supermarket.
My colleagues and I saw the job as nothing more than a means to earn money for weekends and holidays.
If you add in encounters with difficult customers, menial, repetitive tasks, and micromanagers, it’s not hard to see why we all saw it as nothing more than ‘just a job’.
But the company hired someone who, if it were possible to exemplify the all-round leader, would fit the bill perfectly.
Here was a boss who took a genuine interest in each of his employees, performed the same tasks he asked of us (while other managers micromanaged), proactively sought our ideas on ways in which processes could be streamlined to improve performance, and generally left us alone to the tasks he had assigned us.
As a result, all of us – without exception – not only worked hard for our new boss, but we actually wanted to work harder for him.
Where previously we had shunned overtime and clocked out on time without fail, we now wanted to make his department the most efficient, most helpful, and most successful in the supermarket.
This transformation wasn’t brought about through micromanagement; we were transformed because we found ourselves working for a resonant leader.
As renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman explains, when leadership is resonant, followers become “upbeat and enthusiastic and vibrate with the leaders. Resonance amplifies the emotional impact of leadership.”
When leadership is dissonant, people have “a sense of being continually off key.” Dissonant leaders, Goleman suggests, “lack empathy and also tend to transmit emotional tones that resound most often in a negative register.”
Dissonant leaders can range from the “abusive tyrant, who bawls out and humiliates people, to the manipulative sociopath.”
We could say, then, that resonant leaders connect with employees in a way that makes them feel able to explore ideas, communicate their thoughts, and develop their own style of carrying out assigned tasks or roles.
In short, employees no longer feel imprisoned as they often do under micromanagers. Instead, they find themselves freed from the shackles of ineffective leadership, where they can realise and fulfil their true potential.
Of the many things that are said about leadership, one thing is for sure: great leadership doesn’t come about through status or title – it is born from the ability to reach out and make sincere connections.
Leaders should recognise the value of their team members and, most important, trust that they can do a fantastic job without having to be closely monitored every step of the way.
While some may hold the belief that micromanaging is an effective form of leadership, the reverse is true. Micromanaging serves to the detriment of an organisation by creating a culture of fear, anxiety, and demotivation.
When leading others, it is vital to be collaborative and to recognise that, in some ways, your employees are more skilled than you are. This realisation should be celebrated and utilised to its maximum potential.
By giving team members greater freedom and the space to help your organisation, they will feel valued and respected and, in turn, they will invest as much in you and your vision as you have invested in them.
Related article: 5 Traits Of Resonant Leadership
Sandy is obsessed with leadership and how it works. Whether through nature or nurture, he believes resonant leaders have every advantage over those who are able to manage professional relationships effectively. If your organisation could benefit from developing resonant leaders, email us at email@example.com. For more Consulting Corner articles, click here.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.