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Delegating or micromanaging, threading the needle

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delegationMicromanagement can be a reflection of a manager’s feedback and concerns about progress.  Empowerment can create a detached or worried manager.  Threading the needle between delegation and micromanagement is central to the relationship between a manager and a report.  How do you balance this as either a manager or employee?

Be sure to check out the poll results at the end of this post on the topic of why meetings are so ineffective.  This week’s poll is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NTSCCCK

A first year MBA student made the following observation:

High-performing people generally want autonomy to get things done without anyone micromanaging them.  At the same time, as a midlevel manager, I’ve often had someone above me who’s holding me accountable for whatever my direct reports are working on.

I’m struggling to find the right balance between giving people their autonomy while also asking sufficient questions to get the detail I need in order to feel comfortable with how things are going. 

This situation is not uncommon and represents a most fundamental challenge in any management hierarchy.  The situation boils down to a manager feeling accountable, employees wanting the freedom to do the work the best way they know how, and those outside this context assuming all is functioning well.

Here are 5 suggestions for improving the delegation process and avoiding the label of micromanagement:

  • Delegate the problem, don’t solve it.  The first sign of micromanaging is when delegating a project you also delegate the specifics of the solution.  While that makes sense in some fields, in creative or information work, being told up front the steps to follow makes one feel like a vendor and not a partner in the work.  This type of delegation doesn’t have the feeling that it enhances skills or career.  If the steps are well-known then perhaps there is a different view of the problem or delegation that will better suit a creative member of the team.
  • Share experiences, don’t instruct.  As the work progresses there’s a chance that the manager will see a pattern or similar situation arise.  There’s a good chance the way that experience is communicated can come across as either “sage sharing of experiences” or “more micromanaging”.  If there are experiences to share then share the story and allow the learning to take place by allegory and not turn the learning into “just do these steps”.
  • Listen to progress, don’t review it.  Just as managers should be delegating the problem, not the steps to solving it, when it comes time for progress to be reported it is best to let folks report on the progress the way it works best.  Micromanaging can also take the form of being specific about how progress should be reported or “summoning” people to review the progress.  If folks have been asked to take on a project, make sure they have the freedom to define the mechanics of the project as well.
  • Provide feedback, don’t course correct.  Things might not be always going as well as everyone wants and when that happens managers can sometimes slip into “gotta get this fixed” mode.  This type of course correction can remove many of the downstream benefits of delegation and turn into a big negative for folks.  It not only disempowers, but demotivates.  When things aren’t going well, the time is right for honest feedback and a two-way dialog.
  • Communicate serendipitously, don’t impede progress.  All projects have more work and less time than they need.  One way to reduce the amount of time available to make forward progress is for management to call for reviews or updates in a formal manner (meetings, written reports).  This type of communication can slow things down—the preparation, the review, the general stand-down while these work products are created.  If management is concerned about how things are going, then make it a point of finding the balance between serendipitous contact with the team and bugging them too much.

Above all, treat folks as you would like to be treated and validate that approach.  If you are the type of person that is eager to request and receive feedback then chances are you won’t see an eager manager as micromanaging you.  But if you are the type of person that likes some elbow room and your manager is the eager provider of feedback, then that mismatch is likely to be perceived as micromanagement rather than empowering delegation.

The simple solution to this potential dilemma is to communicate about these stylistic expectations before the work really starts.  Even if you’ve worked together for a while and have a rhythm, a new project might come with new approaches for working together.

Delegation can take the form of management asking for work from the team or it can take the form of “we’re all in this together”.  The question to ask yourself is if you delegate work so you’re part of “us” or “them”?

What are some tools you use for effective delegation?  Check out the poll – https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NTSCCCK.

–Steven Sinofsky


Thanks for everyone that responded to our survey for “Using meetings to be more effective”.  In this survey, we hoped to learn together about the tools and characteristics that make meeting successful.

Here are the results:

  • About half of our most recent meetings include a phone bridge, with about one third connecting via Voice over IP (i.e. Skype)
  • In about one in six meetings, at least one person joins via a cell phone
  • About half of our meetings take advantage of screen sharing and about half involve PowerPoint, though only in about one third was a projector used
  • When asked about whether our last meeting was a success, on average (mean and median) we “neither agree nor disagree” that it was a success

In looking at drivers for what made us rate a meeting a success, there were some interesting findings:

  • Regarding technologies, of the technologies queried (phone, cell, VoIP, screen sharing, PowerPoint, projector, and meeting software), only the use of a projector had a statistically significant impact on our success rating.  However, meetings with a projector ranked half a point lower on a five point scale, than those without projectors
  • Interestingly, presenters rated meetings with projectors lower than members of the audience, with a difference of about a half point, it’s worth noting this was not correlated with slideshow software like PowerPoint
  • Of the tips for success discussed,  “a fully understood context” drove the success factor up a third-point , and  a “concise” meeting (brevity) drove success up nearly a half-point.
  • Interestingly, presenters rated meetings with “a fully understood context” higher than members of the audience

Bottom Line:

Modern meetings leverage online tools like to get everyone on the same page, though care should be taken during in-person meetings to not let the audio/visuals detract from your message as a presenter.  Taking time before and during the meeting to create a shared sense of context and keeping your message concise seem to drive the best outcomes for everyone, presenter and audience alike.

Thanks, Cameron

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 18, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in posts

Tagged with , ,

15 Responses

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  11. Thanks for your timely and thgouht-provoking post! I have a student worker and an intern this semester, which is GREAT, but I don’t know how to be a good mentor/boss for them. You’ve given me ideas I also admit to not paying much attention in management class, thinking it was more directed at people who had great dreams of being library directors. I never dreamed that I’d have two people reporting to me within three weeks of my first job! Lessons learned and learning


    October 23, 2013 at 5:20 am

  12. Dustin, thanks a lot for the reply. You know, I’m not a software developer but I’m someone interested in learning ruby, groovy, etc. in order to become better at my systems administration job but then I find something like this:And this is from the documentation from the standard library? I think it would be tough as far as language adoption goes when users new to a language are told that all they need to know is in the rdoc and this is what one winds up finding when going to the docs. Java is a bit better for the most part but there are still lots of examples.Well, thanks for letting me rant on your blog!

  13. Do you think the principles above can be applied in all situations. The 2 situations I found to be challenging in particular are: in tight deadline (when there’s no margin for error) and when working with a person who are not/seem to be self motivated/lack of self discipline. I know there are other parameters that can be solved to avoid those situations, but they do still happen.

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  15. As always, golden words of wisdom, Steven! The one differentiation I would like to add are for those members who actually require much of the above in terms of partial solutions to problems, instructions, defined cadence of reviews and structured feedbacks. They could be college hires, new joinees, or even relatively low experienced cadre. Taking a clue from your thoughts, I also feel it is realistic and impactful to use general directions for the above rather than specific commands even with the cross section of members like the above. They defintely need more clearer directions not only to execute with conviction, but also to understand the culture and semantics of an organization and carve their growth path better. Would love to hear your thoughts on the same?

    Babith B

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