Leadership Tip #9: See & Stop Micromanagement—Learn to Trust Instead

I see too much micromanagement, even in supposedly agile organizations. Micromanagement tells people, “I don't trust you.” When we have insufficient trust, morale and the products deteriorate. Instead, we can extend trust and keep innovating for morale and the products.

This image shows a 6-person team where the leader/manager micromanages. All decisions go through that person in the middle. People don't affiliate as a team—they affiliate with just one person, the leader.

When leaders micromanage, they lose most of the effectiveness of the team's work. People don't learn together and the team doesn't offer more value to the organization.

Let's start with personal micromanagement. Some managers want to stay “relevant,” so they work on the technical work. Other managers ask for status every day or multiple times a day. (Worse, the manager attends the standup! Or, the manager imposes a specific design or approach to the work.

Micromanagement doesn't just occur at the team level. It occurs at the organizational level, too. As an example, when managers don't bother to learn agile measures and what they mean and instead want a Gantt chart, “because how long could it take?” Or, when a manager imposes a “standard” agile approach. Or even when the organization decides every team will use the same board—regardless of what the teams do.

These are signs of micromanagement.

There are plenty of effects of micromanagement:

  • The team can't progress without the manager's attention and work.
  • The manager can't easily go on vacation, but the manager is in the middle of the work.
  • As the people and the team lose their autonomy (and often, mastery and purpose, too), they trust management less.

Micromanagement breeds insufficient trust which reinforces micromanagement. Some organizations have vicious cycles.

First, see yourself.

Are You Micromanaging?

In Practical Ways to Manage Yourself, I offered this checklist to see if you're micromanaging:

  • How many times a day or a week do you check in with people or a team?
  • How frequently do you ask people if they want your opinion or your help?
  • When and how often do you answer for other people?
  • How often do you tell people which risks you want them to manage?

The more often you act this way, the more likely you are to micromanage.

When people micromanage, they imply that they don't trust people to do their work.

And maybe, right now, you can't. You and your managers might have trained people not to take chances, not to experiment. The more you do that, the more you train the people you lead and serve not to learn and experiment.

What about organizational micromanagement? When more senior managers decide for teams, the teams realize the managers don't trust teams to decide how to work.

Micromanagement is about a lack of trust.

What can you do? Start with your context.

What's Your Context?

I suspect you have many good reasons to micromanage. I see these two reasons at the heart of micromanagement:

  • The manager has never seen anything other than micromanagement.
  • Too much of the manager's compensation is based on their direct “delivery” of the work the teams are supposed to do.

Many organizations reinforce micromanagement at all levels. The senior leaders have their hands in the middle of the next layer down's work. The middle managers have their hands in the middle of the first-level managers. And the first-level managers still want to/think/their managers request that they work inside the team on the team's work.

If you've never seen anything other than micromanagement, how could you possibly create an alternative?

Next, let's talk about a manager's delivery. Too many organizations have objectives or goals where the manager is supposed to “deliver Project A in Q1” or some such thing. Worse, it's not just Project A. It's also Projects B, C, D. (This is the worst kind of objectives or goals.)

However, managers don't deliver work by themselves. Managers work through teams. Why is the compensation set up to assume managers can deliver? That's a big question and I'll address that in a future tip.

If you have this context, you might still be able to stop micromanagement.

Consider Your Options

One or more of these options might work for you.

  1. If you are still the expert, pair or mob with people, so you can teach them and move out of the expert role.
  2. Stop asking for status. Instead, ask for an information radiator that helps you see what the team does. I offer many possible options for measures in Create Your Successful Agile Project. Two of them are the product backlog burnup and the feature chart in Velocity is Not Acceleration.
  3. Ask for a regular cadence of demos, too. The more often you see a demo, the more often you can see the team succeed. You will trust them and they will start to trust themselves.
  4. Make sure you ask for the results you want, not a specific method, tool, framework, whatever. Let's just take the example of a board. What would it cost you to make sure every team can create and manage its own board? (Probably nothing.)
  5. Practice delegating all decisions and work that belong to the people you lead and serve. For example, should a feature team decide the rank order of its work? (Yes! The PO decides and the team can influence.) That means you might want to also influence the PO, but you don't decide.  It's the same with the project portfolio. If senior leadership delegates the project portfolio decisions to middle management, then the middle managers decide. Senior management might get to say how often they want the portfolio to change, but they don't get to decide.

There are many more options, but these will perturb your organization enough.

Extend Trust

You might wonder—should people earn your trust before you extend trust to them?

Consider extending trust before you think people have earned it. Remember that people live up or down to your expectations of them.

You don't have to micromanage. You have other options, including trusting the people to do great work.

This is a part of the series of leadership tips.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Tip #9: See & Stop Micromanagement—Learn to Trust Instead”

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