Micromanagement an imbalance between leadership, followership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Curtis Hernandez
  • 21st Operations Group deputy commander
Gen. George S. Patton Jr. once said to never tell people how to do things. Instead, he said "tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." Patton understood that setting a vision, providing direction and then getting out of the way of talented people taps a well of potential that often results in unforeseen success.

However, most successful leaders will balance Patton's quote with another famous general's leadership principles. Gen. Colin Powell's leadership rule number 8: Check small things; and his rule number 11: have a vision and be demanding; these have just as much to do with a military unit's success as employing Patton's concept of trusting your people to deliver on their own.

Having these three principles in balance usually equates to a successful environment for both the organization and the people working in it. That balance is achieved when a leader trusts his people, the people understand and meet the demands of the leader, and the status checkups are viewed by all as an opportunity to contribute to successful completion of the task at hand.

Nevertheless, there are times when this balance is disrupted - creating an environment where the seeds of micromanagement take hold and, if not uprooted quickly, can result in decreased efficiency within a unit or, at worst, mission failure. It's at these times when members of an organization need to stop and ask one of the most important questions in leadership... "Why is this not working?"

From my experience in both highly successful and poorly performing units, when the "Why" question was honestly asked following a complaint of micromanagement, the root cause usually points to an imbalance in the trust, understand or verify concepts. In these circumstances, the leader either fails to clearly communicate what is desired; the staff does not understand the demands of the leader; the staff is simply underperforming; or the status checkups are too frequent and seen as a beat down instead of a boost up.

To keep this tricky balance in check, both leaders and followers can apply some simple techniques. First, leaders should ensure they have a clear vision of the project and desired result before passing tasks on to their followers. Diving into a project knowing what the final product should look like will avoid numerous changes to the plan that disrupt the entire effort. From this vision, the leader must clearly articulate to the staff what the problem is, how it can be solved and what the products or results of the effort should look like. At this point, the "do you understand" question should be a sincere effort to fight for feedback rather than a closing statement while delivering the task.

Second, leaders should also deliver a clear timeline of checkups and the final due date. With the timelines and vision clearly understood, the leader has set expectations and can increase the demand in quality as the team nears the completion date. During the checkups the leader should set the tone of providing constructive feedback and team building to avoid the perception of a beat down. Of course, if the team is underperforming, the feedback must be clear, directive and tied directly back to the original vision.

On the other hand, followers have the responsibility to ask for clear and definitive guidance including what are the expectations and the due date for the task. Once again, launching into a project without understanding these basic elements could cause the leader to increase scrutiny on the team and/or result in the team falling short of expectations. This is when micromanagement will not only take hold, but become the standard method of task completion.

In successful organizations, more autonomy for the staff will result from a well-balanced leader/follower relationship driving up the potential for the ingenuity that Patton envisioned. However, nothing will destroy that autonomy faster than both leaders and followers becoming too comfortable with past success. Past success indicates the potential for future triumphs, but both leaders and followers should never forget what made the organization successful in the first place - avoiding the scourge of micromanagement by maintaining a balance between trusting, understanding and verifying.