Micromanage If You Want Zero Engagement

Jun 24, 2020 1 Min Read


Do we have 20 years of leadership experience or one year of leadership experience repeated 20 times?

In leadership, we’re keen to review the performance of employees and make sure they keep learning and growing and stepping outside their comfort zone. That’s all well and good, but we also have a responsibility to shine that light on ourselves and ask: Am I really being the best leader I can be, or am I just being the leader I’ve always been?

As the MCO in Malaysia relaxes and business returns to ‘normal’ for the first time since March (when the MCO started), I received a message from a LinkedIn connection about an email they received from their company’s HR manager.

The message was thought-provoking, with the gist of the complaint centered around ‘outdated management perspectives that belong to the 1980s’. The email sent to all staff was, and I quote:

 “…so condescending…as though we had been enjoying a four-month holiday and now it was time to get back to work. I’m sure my situation was like many others: I was actually working longer hours from home, trying to be as productive as possible, while tending to my family and trying to deal with the stress of an unknown situation that we’re all still trying to understand.”

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Part of the email advised that returning staff “…should use your time at work to catch up on email and other correspondence, as well as ensuring you are up-to-date on all projects and other work matters.”

“And don’t forget to collect my laundry from the dry cleaners.”

The connection finished their message by saying that the HR manager “…is the type who believes that, if they can’t see you at work, then they assume that you’re not really doing work. It’s like being in the school classroom.”

For any organisation to succeed and thrive, culture is key. Central to any work culture should be respect towards all team members, which includes trusting them to get the job done. As an associate of mine once said, “I don’t care where or how you get the job done – so long as you’re delivering results and I can see the outcomes, I’m too concerned about managing my business to micromanage my people.”

Of course, the ‘where and how’ of getting the job done can’t as of yet be applied to all industries; that said, the key point here is about providing flexibility where possible, and autonomy to the people you hire.

One of the age-old problems of business leadership (and other professions) is that the longer we are in the game, the greater the likelihood of us becoming less competent as time, demands, and attitudes shift. This is why I’m always talking about the need for continuous learning and growth what worked (or seemed to work) in the 1980s might not be as effective in 2020. That’s a span of 40 years. 

The problem is that if you’ve been in management for 20 or more years, there’s a good chance you’re doing things ‘your way’, rather than the best approach that fits with the time and what current research shows as best practices.

Do we have 20 years of leadership experience or one year of leadership experience repeated 20 times?

Bosses who micromanage may be significantly hurting their organisations, as noted in a Harvard Business Review article:

…absenteeism caused by disengagement costs a typical 10,000-person company $600,000 a year in salary for days where no work was performed, and that ‘disengagement-driven turnover costs most sizable businesses millions every year’. By contrast, engaged employees are more likely to show up to work, to stay with a firm longer, and to be more productive while they’re on the job. Gallup research cited in the book finds that highly engaged teams average 18% higher productivity and 12% greater profitability than the least engaged teams.

When we lead people in a way that suggests ‘I’m in charge’ and implies that they should be grateful for having a job in the first place, the best you can expect from employees is compliance (aka micromanage) – they’ll do what’s required, but little more. And that’s not because they’re being spiteful.

By dismissing this reality, and by continuing to micromanage, we engage in lazy leadership.

Research studies highlight that when people feel stressed at work, or when they feel like they’re just another number, another dot on the balance sheet, anxiety levels rise in the workplace. When people are tense, they go into survival mode: creativity, innovation, imagination…none of these can function when people feel disengaged and stressed at work.

As leaders, we have to acknowledge the effect of how we make people feel in the workplace and how that correlates to performance. The old saying that you should leave your feelings at the door when you’re at work is ignorant of the fact that people don’t stop being human just because they’ve entered the office. We all have a desire to be valued, respected and to make a meaningful contribution through our work.

Well, he drank half the cup, but it’s the thought that counts.

By dismissing this reality, and by continuing to micromanage, we engage in lazy leadership. When we take a look at effective leaders, from Alexander the Great all the way through to Barack Obama, the best of them intuitively recognised the importance of connection and emotional intelligence. These aren’t new buzzwords – they’ve been demonstrably effective qualities of great leadership for thousands of years.

What all of history’s great leaders knew is that they would never be able to succeed without committed, engaged and driven people helping the cause. Fear and compliance might offer some short-term benefit, but in the long-run, leaders who subscribe to ineffective approaches will end up with a mediocre team of people who stay because they can’t go elsewhere.

Meanwhile, their best people will find new employers who are happy to recognise their worth and support them in a way that makes their new team members give everything they have to help their new organisation move ahead of the competition.

See Also: Motherlands Need to be Motherly

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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