The Undermanagement Epidemic, Part IV:
The great red herring of micro-management
In her awesome (as usual) column (Fortune, August 23, 2004) about the under-management epidemic, Anne Fisher did us the favor of consulting a dictionary: "Micro-management" actually means "managing with great or excessive attention to detail." So, which is it? Great? Or Excessive? Therein lies the rub.
Micro-management is a concept that is widely misunderstood and routinely misused. Every manager knows that employees wishing to be left alone by their managers try using the term as a shield: "Don't micro-manage me!" But just as often, it serves as a lame excuse wielded by managers who don't want to be bothered with supervisory responsibilities: "I don't want to be a micro-manager."
THIS IS EXCESSIVE attention to detail: The manager is standing over the shoulder of the worker giving blow by blow instructions so that two (or more) people are tangled up together in a one-person task. Picture one hammer and two people (the carpenter and her manager). "Nail number one goes right here," says the manager pointing. BANG, BANG, BANG. "OK. Nail number two goes there," the manager continues. BANG, BANG, BANG. "Not like that. Like this," says the manager, grabbing the hammer. BANG, BANG, BANG. "OK? Now nail number three goes right here." And so on.
Excessive or pathological micro-management results from a failure to delegate effectively: Either the manager starts out by offering so little direction that the worker cannot possibly succeed and thus, eventually, the manager is standing over the worker's shoulder directing corrections. Or else the manager never separates him/herself from the work at all and thus it's as if the manager is using the worker as a marionette to accomplish the task at hand. In both cases, micro-management occurs because the manager has not assigned a clear goal with guidelines and a concrete deadline.
THIS IS GREAT attention to detail: The manager spends a few minutes with the worker at the beginning of the day to go over the work to be done. The manager is knowledgeable about the work to be done and also familiar with the ability, skill and work habits of the worker. Thus, the manager knows what expectations are reasonable and is able to set ambitious assignments. Together they review the specifications for the job and the game plan. They agree on how much the worker can and will accomplish today, assuming nothing goes wrong. They try to anticipate any potential problems so they can be avoided. The managers double-checks that the worker has the necessary tools and no lingering questions, offers a few brief reminders, and leaves the worker to put in a day of work. At the end of the day, the manager returns for a guided tour of the worker's results, evaluates the work, offers thanks, maybe congratulations or perhaps suggestions for improvement, and takes written notes. Finally, the manager pays the worker; more if the job is great; less if the job is not so great.
If THAT is micro-management, then micro-management has truly become a red herring because, really, I've just described the basic elements of supervision. And practicing these elements consistently is the only way to give a worker the right amount of "space" and responsibility.