IT leadership: How to stop micromanaging

Has a year of remote work turned you into a micromanager? Consider this expert advice on how to adjust your approach
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Crack in ground, employees falling into crack

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives and business activities for more than a year now. While vaccine distribution is raising optimism, the reality is that many variables are still in play. And even after the virus is fully under control, our lives won’t automatically reset back to 2019. Processes have changed during the pandemic, and as business leaders, we’ve changed too.

Much has been written about how software, Zoom calls, digital outreach, etc., have helped leaders maintain business continuity. Three cheers for technology — just imagine how events would have unfolded if coronavirus had hit in 2000 instead of 2020. But we don’t talk enough about the pandemic’s impact on our personal sense of control and the implications that has on how we lead our teams.

Micromanager? Who, me?

Even if micromanagement wasn’t in your pre-pandemic leadership repertoire, you may have unwittingly fallen into that pattern now. It’s perfectly understandable since the pandemic has stripped away so many layers of personal and professional control that we previously relied on. For more than a year, COVID-19 has affected how we work, communicate, shop, entertain ourselves, and travel.

[ Remote work can lead some people to slip into micromanager behaviors. Read also: Are you micromanaging your remote or hybrid team? 10 questions.]

It’s not unusual for people to assert authority in their areas of influence when it feels like their life is spinning out of control, and in some cases, this may even be justified. But it’s important to understand how this unprecedented time has changed your business, how it may be affecting you personally, and how revisiting management fundamentals can help you make sure you’re leading in an effective way.

For many employees, the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their entire career. Employees are juggling children’s schooling and caregiving duties, their spouse’s career needs, etc., along with their own workloads. It’s difficult, and there’s no “one weird trick” business strategy that can save the day. But a strong company culture can — if you trust it.

Culture trumps strategy every time

We’ve all had to learn new ways of leading and managing. But it’s important to keep the company culture alive, and the best workplace cultures are built on a foundation of trust and autonomy. Leaders can inadvertently undermine that by monitoring employee activities too closely and checking in too often. Micromanaging can hurt morale and stifle engagement, creativity, and innovation. 

Micromanaging can hurt morale and stifle engagement, creativity, and innovation.

So, if you’ve strayed into micromanager mode, it’s time to rebalance your approach. Keep in mind that one byproduct of a remote work schedule is that people may be tackling their workload outside the usual 9-5 schedule. Maybe they’re working later in the evening or earlier in the morning, so they’ll have time to deal with the kids’ schooling. As long as quality work is getting done, does that matter?

As a manager, you need to figure out what’s important and get clarity on how changes in work routines affect business goals. Align the company vision with specific business goals and make sure that the way employees complete tasks (and how you interact with your team) support those goals. That’s how you can empower your people and maintain control where it counts without overdoing it.

Get back to business basics 

Remember the RACI matrix? It’s a tool for clarifying roles and responsibilities that can help managers stay on track — or rescue projects that have issues. A RACI approach can also help pandemic-related micromanagers gain clarity on how team interactions have changed.

Here’s the acronym explained:

Responsible: the people who do the work

Accountable: the person who “owns” the task

Consulted: the people whose input is required for the work to take place

Informed: the people who need to be kept in the loop

It’s easy to see how remote working could scramble previously existing RACI arrangements. If everyone’s working from home, you won’t run into a project leader in the break room and get an informal update on progress. As the leader, you ultimately own all the tasks, but the information flow has probably changed, and that causes you to micromanage tasks that don’t require close supervision.

Here are some ideas about how to strengthen your culture and address disruptions to team interactions that can result in micromanagement:

Celebrate wins: Do regular team huddles to recognize employee successes. This helps motivate staff while creating more opportunities for the types of informal exchanges that kept you up to date when everyone was working under the same roof.

Balance the nature of your interactions with employees: A healthy feedback ratio is about 5:1; i.e., five kudos for every correction. Balance is critical because if you reach out only when there’s a problem, employees may feel unappreciated and micromanaged.

Reassess roles according to results: Adjust your expectations as necessary, recognizing that if employees are successfully working independently, your role may shift from “consulted” to “informed” — if results indicate that is appropriate.

RACI is just one management tool, but the same principle applies to whatever model you use to lead your workplace. Remote teams need autonomy to create trust, but autonomy also must be balanced with accountability. You may find you need to rebuild these frameworks to accommodate new realities. It’s worth doing because then you and your team can worry less about process and focus on results.

A remote team where autonomy and accountability are balanced is like a well-synchronized crew on a dragon boat. Dragon boats have a drummer to set the pace, and when it’s done well, the boat seems to glide effortlessly. As a leader, you set the pace for your remote team, and micromanagement doesn’t work. Instead, recalibrate the pace as required, and trust your culture to smooth the way forward.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Tara Kelly
Tara Kelly is the founder, president and CEO of SPLICE Software, a customer engagement company specializing in automated communication workflows, digital communications and real business results.