How to stop micromanaging and start helping
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How to stop micromanaging and start helping

Virtual work and the risk of micromanaging

UGM research highlights that the impact of COVID has massively accelerated what was an existing trend: the move to working virtually. For instance, MIT data indicate that before COVID a mere 15% of US employees worked from home at least some of the time. Now it’s half and these statistics are similar in every country.

The globalisation of economies, the need for remote teamwork and the demand for flexible work practices were all slowly but surely pushing employers to configure work differently. But it took the outbreak of a pandemic to unceremoniously force this transition. And the sky didn’t fall in! In fact, performance and productivity were largely maintained, and even improved in many instances. A range of benefits were seized on (ditch the commute!) and some challenges were identified (how to collaborate and connect virtually).

But in all this conversation, one risk has received relatively little attention: what about the dilemmas facing managers thrust into remote work but, typically, equipped only with the more traditional skills of face-to-face supervision. The work lives of many managers are now significantly more complex and thus more stressful. But, in the absence of targeted support, many are struggling to adjust. This stress then gets passed on to their team in the form of micromanaging.

There is no doubt that micromanagement is what might be termed a ‘dirty word’ in today’s organisations. A boss that steps in too often as you do your work soon acquires a bad reputation. Indeed, research by Donald Sull at MIT and Teresa Amabile at Harvard shows it’s one way managers can often (albeit unintentionally) erode the sense of meaning and purpose that are known to underpin engagement and high performance. A boss who is ‘on your case’ or ‘breathing down your neck’ is not appreciated!

Micromanagement – a trap for the unwary

UGM Consulting has been researching virtual teamwork for 20 years and our data consistently show that managers who can’t actually see their direct reports on a daily basis can face difficulties building and sustaining trust. Trust, always fragile, can be severely damaged when managers start to doubt their team members and develop unreasonable expectations, as a result. Mistrust can lead to micromanagement which, in turn, causes a drop in motivation and performance, eroding trust even further. This becomes a downward spiral that’s hard to reverse.

A 2020 Curtin University study (by Sharon Parker et al) surveyed more than 1200 people in 24 countries, asking questions about managers’ trust in their remote workers. 40% of the supervisors and managers in the study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage remote teams effectively. They were also dubious about the performance and motivation levels of their staff members. It’s worth noting that where organisations were found to have provided little in the way of practical support (for example, training) for virtual supervision skills, then managers operating in those organisations reported lower levels of self-efficacy.

The same study found that many workers also expressed a strong sense that their supervisors did not fully trust them, with this contributing to increased levels of employee stress and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, the study’s authors concluded, “Micromanagement is not an effective way to get the best out of people.”

But the hands-off manager is not popular either

Managers shouldn’t be completely ‘laissez-faire’, however, especially when their team members are separated geographically and perhaps by time zone differences too, as is the case for many UGM clients. In knowledge-based organisations, in particular, where typical projects are complex and creative, team members often need (and want) more than just a few words of encouragement now and again. They turn to their manager for well-timed and appropriate help that will make a genuine difference.

Teresa Amabile (Harvard), Colin Fisher (London), and Juliana Pillemer (New York) conducted an extensive multi-year (2014 to 2021) research program, analysing hundreds of successful and unsuccessful ‘helping episodes.’ They defined these as occasions when a manager intervened to help a team progress their work. A key takeaway was the important distinction they made between ‘deep help’ and ‘micromanaging’. They found that managers who were experienced as helpful rather than annoying shared three key strategies in common.

First, the successful managers lent a hand at the right time. This isn’t about predicting or pre-empting problems before they arise. In fact, the opposite proved to have greater impact. Astute managers, it seems, understand that people are generally more willing to receive help if they have first had a chance to get involved in the task and have discovered its challenges for themselves. Then any help offered is understood and valued much more.

The second strategy concerned clarifying why you’re getting involved. The issue here is that managers play many roles in relation to their team members: evaluating, informing, instructing, correcting, and rewarding amongst others. These roles are based on power: the manager has positional power in relation to their team members. This power difference can mean that a team member becomes defensive or anxious when help is offered. Here trust and psychological safety were found to be important team culture attributes, if the manager wants to convey that they want to help, not judge or take over. A critical step that effective managers were found to take was clarifying their intentions and their willingness to be a collaborative adviser.

A third strategy concerned aligning any help offered to the nature of the challenge a team is facing. For example, do your team members need intensive, short-term guidance or would your help be more appropriately delivered over a longer period, in a ‘path-clearing’ manner? Intensive help can create a crucial turning point in a project that was at risk of getting stuck. In contrast, intermittent help delivered over a longer period might take the pressure off the team in an ongoing way. But to make the right call about the type of help required means that a manager needs to stay informed so that they can avoid their well-meant help being seen as shallow or vague.

Virtual helping skills deliver dividends

With so many teams these days scattered across different locations (working from home, working from anywhere) this issue of how managers can help their people in ways experienced as useful, not annoying, is only going to grow in importance. When managing a remote team, one risk is checking in too often but another is not checking in often enough!

Research from multiple sources, including our own UGM data, indicates that people working virtually can quite easily start to feel isolated and out of touch. The right style of support, delivered in the right amount, at the right time can boost performance and enhance that all-important sense of belonging. Helping at a distance turns out to involve a complex skill set, one much-needed as organisations adjust to this new normal of most employees working from home, at least some of the time. For employees, the experience of positive ‘helping episodes’ boosts morale, job satisfaction and performance. Skills that will deliver such important outcomes are certainly worth learning!


10 Tips to help you avoid micromanaging and start helping

  1. Regularly reflect on how much control and oversight from you are experienced as helpful by your team members.
  2. Consistently monitor team trust levels and act swiftly to address any trust shortfalls.
  3. Prioritise the tasks and projects most important to you and share this with your subordinates.
  4. Discuss with your team members a clear line of sight between the work each person does, the team’s goals, and the organisation’s goals.
  5. Draw up a team agreement about how and when you ‘check-in,’ rather than ‘check-up’
  6. Discuss your reporting preferences with team members, so that you can minimise any work style clashes.
  7. Ensure your offers of help are timed wisely i.e., once team members have got a clear sense of the project and its challenges for themselves.
  8. Clarify what you’re trying to achieve with your help so that your positive intentions are understood.
  9. Adjust the nature of your help to the type of challenges your team members are facing, e.g., intensive or intermittent help.
  10. Regularly review ‘helping episodes’ with your team members, so that you can minimise any mismatches in the amount and style of help you give them.

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