Delegating or micromanaging – threading the needle

Why It’s Valuable

Steven Sinofsky lays out 5 suggestions for hitting the perfect balance of micromanagement and empowerment. In startups and any small team moving fast we can skew too far to micromanagement, often with very good reasons. Finding the right way to pull that back though will improve the employee experience, engage more brains, and reduce the load on yourself.

Who’s Steven?

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) was a leader at Microsoft for years, and is now a board member at a16z, an advisor at Box, and an EIR at Harvard Business School.  If Marc, Ben, and Aaron listen to him you should too.  His blog (linked below) has a huge amount of valuable content about tech, product, and people management.

Further Learning

The full post is below, please check it out on Steven’s blog, “Learning By Shipping“, which is excellent.  This reminds me a lot of the classic article Who’s Got The Monkey, which you can find here until we have a summary up.

Also enjoyed this brief deck on Do You Lead or Micromanage, from WeekDone.com which includes some fun and sobering stats like “38% of employees would rather do unpleasant activities than sit next to their micromanaging boss.”  I have some desks to rearrange…

Delegating or micromanaging, threading the needle

Micromanagement 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?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

Jeff Magnusson

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