Addressing a Performance Issue without Micromanaging

We all know micromanagement is bad. It leads to a loss of autonomy, which decreases motivation, which in turn decreases productivity.  (The research on this is summarized in Daniel Pink’s book Drive.)  It decreases creativity. (The research on this is also summarized in Drive, and is placed into the context of managing scientists in a paper by Sapienza and Lombardino.) And it leads to decreased employee engagement, which is a predictor of higher employee turnover. (See this HBR post by Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay for more info on that.) Furthermore, since micromanaging your team can cause your team to underperform, it can undermine your own career.

I have never run across a manager who proudly identifies as a micromanager. But I’ve run across many, many micromanagers. Why do we keep doing something that we all know is bad? I am sure there are a lot of reasons. Sapienza and Lombardino, for instance, identify the need of to make decisions with up to date information and a scientific culture of rewarding individual contributions over group efforts. Robert Hurley and James Ryman point to perfectionism as a frequent cause of micromanagement.

In my case, it happened because I had a performance issue on a high profile project.

I had assigned this project to a senior team member, who I’ll call Pat. Pat’s performance on technically similar projects had been stellar, so I had no concerns… until the project stopped progressing. My own boss was asking questions, and I knew that the senior management at my company were paying attention to this project. So I stepped in and started directing the details of the work.

Predictably, this made matters worse. Pat’s performance began to suffer across all projects, and the high profile project still only crept along.

Luckily, I recognized what was happening, took a big step back, and stopped micromanaging. Pat and I worked together to address the underlying problems that had created the performance issue, the project eventually got done, and Pat and I repaired the relationship my micromanagement had damaged.

My experience highlights the fact that micromanagement can sometimes be a response to a real problem. Telling a manager not to micromanage doesn’t solve the underlying problem. If you are faced with a performance problem, what can you do instead? Here are some possibilities:

1. Make sure you have set clear priorities

Most people juggle more than one project these days. This is hard to avoid, and in fact, some people actually prefer to have at least two projects, so they can work on project B when progress on project A is blocked by something. However, if your team has multiple projects, it is essential that they know the relative priorities on all of them. Does an issue on project B require immediate attention, even if that means dropping work underway on project A? Is project C so important that failing on it will negate good outcomes on all other projects?

If you don’t tell your team what the priorities are and help them understand why those are the priorities, they may well decide to prioritize based on which project is most comfortable or most enjoyable. If your team member decides to work on project A and you are assessing his performance based on the progress on project C, you have a problem.

Worse, in the absence of priorities, some people will try to advance all projects equally, which leads to fragmented time and decreased performance. Other people can be paralyzed by a large to do list, even if it is prioritized. In this case, it is your job to look at your priorities and only assign as many projects as the person can handle. Know your team, and know who can handle a large to do list as long as it is prioritized, and who needs a list that is never more than three projects long. And make sure that no matter what, everyone is clear on which projects matter the most.

2. Make sure you have a culture that accepts mistakes

If your team is working on challenging projects, it is unrealistic to expect they will always get everything right.  What happens when a mistake happens? Ideally, the team will acknowledge the mistake and discuss ideas for how to prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future. In far too many teams, though, what happens is that the person who made the mistake gets penalized. This can lead to a culture where people are afraid to take any action without your direct involvement, so that they can’t be seen to have done something “wrong.” Before you know it, you’re a micromanager.

If a team member makes frequent mistakes, or makes the same mistake over and over, examine the route causes of that problem and address them. Do not “make an example” of the problem employee or chastise the entire team for the issues.

If you’ve already developed a culture in which people are afraid to make mistakes, acknowledge that directly, and commit to changing it. Ask your team to trust you, and make sure you follow through as promised. It will take some time, but as long as you are consistent in not punishing honest mistakes, the culture will change and performance should improve.

If you are struggling with how to discuss mistakes without creating a culture in which people fear mistakes, look at the “5 Whys” method, in which you identify the error that occurred and ask why it happened. Then you take the answer and ask why <i>that</i> condition occurred. You continue doing this until you have identified the root cause. The technique gets its name because five rounds of asking “why” is usually sufficient.

3. Make sure you are predictable

Google found that one of the most important qualities in a manager is predictability. If you think about it, this makes sense: if your team can predict how you will respond to situations, they will feel confident making decisions within those known parameters. Only when something truly novel comes up will they need your direct guidance. If your decisions and responses are unpredictable, they will feel like they need to come to you for every little decision, and once again, before you know it, you’re a micromanager.

If you think that your unpredicatablity is the source of your performance problem, try clearly articulating the parameters under which team members can make independent decisions. Then make sure that your behavior matches the parameters you’ve described, and in time, your team’s performance is likely to improve. In fact, some employees, particularly those who have previously been micromanaged, need to be given explicit parameters even if you are already an extremely predictable manager. Again, it is your job to know your team and provide them with the environment they need.

Although it can be hard to articulate the parameters guiding your decisions, it is likely that everyone’s performance will get a boost if you can actually describe your decision-making criteria and turn more of the day-to-day decision making over to your team.

4. Have an honest discussion with the employee

You can guess about what is causing an employee’s performance to suffer, or you can just ask him. The latter approach is far more likely to succeed. Too often, managers avoid this sort of discussion because it involves giving difficult feedback. In my experience, though, employees actually welcome these discussions as long as they are actually discussions, not a disciplinary action. In the example I mentioned above, Pat knew there was a problem just as clearly as I did, but did not feel empowered to solve it. We had a discussion and worked out solutions that allowed Pat to perform well again, and as much as I dreaded initiating that discussion, I think it left both of us feeling happier.

For this discussion to work, you have to listen more than you talk. Start by describing the performance problem you see, and then ask your employee to tell you what she thinks is causing it, and how you can support her in resolving it. Then really listen to what she says. If you disagree with her assessment, say so, and tell her why. Continue the discussion until you have agreed on next steps for both of you- and then make damn sure you follow through on the next steps assigned to you. If you fail to do that, you will damage the trust your employee has in you, and you can almost guarantee that she will start looking for another job.

5. Borrow some ideas from Agile software development

I will write more in the future about the ideas in Agile software development that I think can be applied to good effect in other fields. For now, I’ll just briefly mention two techniques that can help resolve performance problems almost magically, with very little direct intervention from you.

The first is to visualize your work process. This is a technique borrowed from Kanban methods. Figure out what stages each project moves through, and then visualize where each of your projects  is in this workflow. Also show who is working on each project. You will immediately see if you have someone overloaded, and resolving that may solve your performance problem. You can also use this visualization to identify common bottlenecks in the process, and as a way for employees to hold themselves accountable for progress on their projects: if someone sees that his project is not making progress though the process steps,  he will usually want to fix that. At the very least, it provides a convenient and non-confrontational way to ask him why he’s blocked.

If your team likes this approach, you may even want to more fully adopt Kanban, and start visualizing the progress of specific tasks rather than overall projects.

The second Agile process to consider is borrowed from Scrum methods, and in fact gives those methods their name. It is the idea of having a short daily meeting to discuss a project. Everyone says what she did yesterday, what she is going to do next, and what, if anything, is blocking progress. Software development teams following this process usually have a 15 minute stand-up meeting (or “scrum”) every day. Having everyone stand up decreases the temptation to gossip or make small talk and drag out the meeting. Because the meetings are so short, they aren’t particularly disruptive, and because they are so frequent, problems do not get the chance to fester. If you do not think your team will respond well to such a large change in process, you could at least try incorporating the three questions (What did I do? What will I do? Am I blocked?) into a weekly meeting.

One of the things that makes management so challenging is that every team is different. No one technique will work with every team. However, if you are familiar with a wide range of techniques to try, and you take the time to really think about the personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of the people on your team, you should be able to find a solution to performance problems without resorting to micromanagement. Your team will be happier if you do.

Have you ever found yourself micromanaging? What techniques do you use instead when faced with a performance problem? Tell me in the comments.


  1. Insect Biologist said:

    Wow – this is a great post with lots of excellent links! Your description of your own micromanaging experience made me realize that I tend to micromanage when things are going wrong. Now that I’m aware of the inclination, I can work against it.

    August 22, 2014

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