Micromanagement VS Empowerment: Do You Know Your Role?

Jun 04, 2014 1 Min Read
understand why Micromanagement works
Understanding A Leader's Role in People Management

The person who knows how will always have a job. The person who knows why will always be his boss.

Actually, a better way of viewing this is as a spectrum, not an “either-or” problem. You don’t either micromanage or empower. Consider it as a process instead – some clever people have actually identified stages for these sort of things.

I have to say I can’t quite make up my mind though if I should be in total awe of their cleverness or be annoyed beyond belief at their smartness which just makes life complicated for the rest of us. But I digress.

The options that these clever people provide us usually help to make things clearer and more manageable. And I doubt there are more “less clear” and “less manageable” things in the world than people management.

Hit you at the pain point? Right, read on then.

Let’s imagine another day in the office. There is a newbie who has just joined and there is a boss or supervisor. The normal scenario that takes place in most work relationships with a newbie is the boss or the more experienced colleague hovering over and saying things like “you see – that’s exactly what I was saying would be the problem if you did that” or “no, no, trust me, this is the best way to do it; I have approximately 165,487 hours of doing it this way”.

I am not convinced this is the path to employee engagement and sustaining motivations. What do you need to do then?

You, dear leader, need to start expanding your options for managing people. The issue becomes limited if viewed within the scope of either micromanaging or empowering.

Let’s consider the continuum – you micromanage, then you delegate, follow up with empowering and finally you partner. Sound a bit more interesting?


I don’t know at which exact point in management history did the idea of micromanagement become the North Korea of the management lexicon, but there you have it.

We ebb and flow with the times and today’s workforce will run many miles away from you if they so much as smell a hint of micromanagement happening in the company. Very different from a not-so-distant past where employees expected to be micromanaged!

In 2009, Towers Watson conducted a survey of 20,000 employees across 22 countries and the respondents were asked to assess the effectiveness of their immediate managers. One key differentiator was time allocation.

The best managers tend to be able to juggle their time more effectively, thus actually have more face-to-face time with employees than their less-effective peers.

Seventy-five per cent of respondents who said they have effective managers interact with them at least daily.

Employees who say they have effective managers also feel more comfortable working independently. So here lies the perplexing conundrum; better managers have more contact with their people, which makes employees feel more capable of working with less manager contact.

Where it starts to stink up the room is when managers decide to become overbearing hulks of the office. What message do you think your employee perceives when you get involved with dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”? Yes, it shows a lack of trust and very often, disrespect.

If you go back to your office and write down all the problems with your employees – and your list turns out to include some of these terms; “no initiative, does not seem to be creative, stressed, demotivated, incompetent…” – then it might pay to revisit your management style instead of prescribing remedial actions like a retreat or retraining workshops! These are the normal symptoms of a micromanaged employee.


And thus you arrive at the conclusion that micromanagement isn’t such a good idea after all. Not just because it has cost you many invites to office gatherings but also because you realise the more time you spend on things like ensuring your employee’s pencil is sharpened to within 0.1mm of specifications, the less time you are going to have to “sharpen your own saw”; to quote Stephen R. Covey.

You see, there reaches a point in an organisation’s or department’s life cycle where resources are stretched and you are forced to hire to get more work done.

When that happens, leaders need to ensure their time is spent well and one option available is to hire and delegate work. The whole idea is to become more efficient and strategic and you cannot do that while micromanaging everything.

Let me spill a secret. Delegating is actually a pretty easy thing to do. You just have to ensure that you don’t stop your interactions after explaining the whats and the hows of a task and responsibility.

The key is to ensure you also articulate very clearly the why a particular job is done and why it’s done in a certain way. You would be amazed at the magic that context brings to a task!

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Jan Yager, in her book Work Less, Do More, suggests doing some of these things to ensure you get the maximum benefit out of delegating to your employees:

· Choose what tasks you are willing to delegate. You should be using your time for the most critical tasks of the business, and the tasks that only you can do. Delegate what you can’t do, and what doesn’t interest you. For example, non-computer types should consider delegating their social media, website, and SEO (search engine optimisation) activities.

· Pick the best person to delegate to. Listen and observe. Learn the traits, values, and characteristics of those who will perform well when you delegate to them. That means giving work to people who deliver, not people who are the least busy. This requires hiring people with the right skills, not the least expensive or friends and family.

· Trust those to whom you delegate. It always starts with trust. Along with trust, you also have to give the people to whom you delegate the chance to do a job their way. Of course the work must be done well, but your way or the highway is not the right way.

· Delegate responsibility and authority, not just the task. Managers who fail to delegate responsibility in addition to specific tasks eventually find themselves reporting to their subordinates and doing some of the work, rather than vice versa.

And, finally, the most important and easiest but something that many leaders fail to do:

· Give public and written credit. This is the simplest step, but one of the hardest for many people to learn. It will inspire loyalty, provide real satisfaction for work done, and become the basis for mentoring and performance reviews.

And so, after progressing from micromanaging to delegating, we now arrive at a point when we start to think that maybe the old adage “if you want to get something done right, do it yourself” is not such a smart statement after all.

Having delegated work successfully, a leader would now be able to focus on more of the visionary work required for both personal and organisational development. But the process doesn’t stop at simply delegating work. When employees become competent, it’s time for you to start empowering them.


What exactly does “empower” mean?

Empowerment can be defined as the process of enabling (or authorising) an individual to think, behave, act and control work and decision-making in autonomous ways. It is not an implementation, and it is only partly a strategy. Rather, it is a philosophy; it is the state of feeling self-empowered to take control of one’s own future and fostering a culture wherein this state can thrive.

That of course sounds very much like a Gen-Y description of their ideal manager. It probably is a much more 20th century notion with all the multitudes of information that’s everywhere and children aged one already on their third smartphone, thus making them better informed and exposed. But it is not a new idea, nor is it a bad idea. Allowing people to think and act can actually lead to big breakthroughs for organisations.

“From my experience, an un-empowered workforce is more likely to operate in a slow, hierarchical decision-making manner that ultimately affects customer service and the success and profitability of the business,” said Nina Ramsey, senior vice president of global human resources for Kelly Services.

“It is important that employees feel connected to the company strategy, their role, their leaders and their team in order to secure their willingness to give discretionary effort and commitment to stay with the company.”

Empowered employees are engaged employees. They have all tools they need to learn and grow, connect with colleagues and others throughout the company, make their own decisions, be leaders and contribute to the success of the business. Put another way, empowerment is a key driver of engagement.

Several of the 12 “elements of great managing” as determined by the Gallup Organization are directly related to employee empowerment. Empowered employees share the following attitudes toward their jobs, according to the Gallup research:

· I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

· I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

· There is someone at work who encourages my development.

· At work, my opinions seem to count.

· The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

· In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

· This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

To ensure you are not just convinced that empowerment is not just an option but is now considered a necessity, let me regale you with more research insights.

Having an empowered workforce should be a priority for organisational leaders for the following reasons:

· An empowered workforce is more engaged. Engaged employees drive higher customer satisfaction and boost the bottom line. The Gallup Organization reports that companies with higher-than-average employee engagement also had 27% higher profits, 50% higher sales and 50% higher customer loyalty.

Engaged employees also result in a higher retention rate. In turn, this gives an organisation a larger talent pool and, as a result, more and better options for succession planning – an increasingly important factor for success as the organisation develops.

· An empowered workforce is higher performing and more productive. When people are empowered, they are more engaged – translating to higher levels of productivity and increased revenue. Research by the Forum for People Performance Management & Measurement found that organisations with engaged employees have customers who use their products more, which leads to higher customer satisfaction levels.

· An empowered workforce is more aligned with an organisation’s business goals. Empowered employees are in sync with the overall goals of the business. Alignment means they have the right skills, knowledge and expertise required to support current and future initiatives – contributing to greater talent readiness and succession planning. Alignment also helps management gain better business intelligence and insight regarding the workforce – allowing them to make smarter business decisions and be more agile in shifting business conditions.

Take for instance a widely cited example of an empowered organisation – Southwest Airlines. At one point, this airline was the carrier with the fewest customer complaints, a picture of operational efficiency with the fastest turnaround time, never having a history of any major accident, and weathered the recession with considerable ease when others were struggling to stay afloat.

At one point, it was the only American airline company to post profits. The airline flies 2,318 passengers per employee, the highest in the industry where the average is 848 passengers per employee for the industry.

What did they do differently from their competition? Simple as it may sound, empowerment was the key to ensuring the workforce did the right thing and not strictly doing things right.

There is a famous anecdote whereby (a bit of context, this was in the days before 9-11. Today, any employee doing this would probably be waterboarded) a famous author had misplaced his travel documents at the boarding gate and instead of putting the poor man through the bureaucratic hassle that would naturally come with such absent-mindedness, the Southwest Airline staff verified the author by identifying him with the book he was carrying and which he was en route to speak about.

Can you imagine the positive publicity this one act would have generated? Facebook and Twitter were still ideas appearing in Zuckerberg and Dorsey’s dreams at the point of this episode. If something like this happened today in 2014, try to quantify that positive publicity into earning potential and you tick off all the boxes as to why employee empowerment just isn’t an option anymore. Unfortunately, most organisations are still wrapped around the pinky of that most seductive of lures – power and control.


The final stage of leadership and management utopia – transforming an empowered employee into a partner. Tom Peters, the guru of management gurus, once said: “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.”

A mature and empowered organisation would naturally start producing new and dynamic ideas without the prodding of its founding fathers (or mothers). When that becomes the norm rather than an anomaly, you know you have reached the point of partnership with an employee.

At this point, the leader should be more concerned about retention and reward for the “employee partner” and not with the product quality. An employee you can trust as a partner allows you to move to other endeavors while simultaneously not worrying about the company that you have built thus far.

Micromanagement has its place; partnering has its place. The key is to understand when each of it is needed. That’s the role of the leader.

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Vinesh Naidu has been working in the talent management space for the past decade. He is passionate about football, travel and catching up with friends; all of which are currently either paused, completely stopped or socially not accepted. Thus the time to ruminate.

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