Don’t Worry About Micromanagement—This Is the Bigger Problem

May 23, 2024 David Witt

A colleague of mine recently described a common fear of many managers: being labeled a micromanager. It’s someone who over-supervises people, gives direction when it’s not needed, and is very particular about how and when things get done.

What my colleague shared—backed up with research conducted by Blanchard®—is that the problem in today’s workforce isn’t too much supervision, it’s too little.

In the Blanchard® survey, we asked people what type of leadership they wanted from their manager. A majority of respondents said they wanted various combinations of high direction and high support. When we asked a follow-up question about what type of leadership they experienced most often at work, they said it was just the opposite—a combination of low direction and low support.

It's not that managers don’t want to help their people; most do! But managerial time is in short supply these days. Managers responding to a 2022 survey conducted by Blanchard indicated their own schedules were full.

  • 70% were spread across too many projects
  • 66% had too many goals
  • 60% had too many priorities to focus on
  • 59% had unclear priorities

At Blanchard, we believe one of the ways you can help the managers in your organization be more effective is to teach them how to be more efficient with their time. Blanchard’s SLII® model shows how people progress through four predictable stages of development when confronted with a work goal. Effective managers tailor the amount of direction and support they give team members on each specific goal, based on their needs.

Development Level 1 is Enthusiastic Beginner. This direct report is excited to begin a new task but doesn’t have any demonstrated competence. They need specific direction from their manager—details on how to do the task and what a good job looks like. No danger of micromanaging here. Unfortunately, the opposite leadership style is more commonly used here: A manager assigns a task and confuses the person’s excitement for competence. When the complexity of the new task becomes evident to the team member, the manager isn’t around to provide direction on what, when, or how to accomplish the task. Instead, the learner is left alone to figure out the task for themselves. The result? A lot of trial and error and wasted time.

Development Level 2 is Disillusioned Learner. Even under the best of circumstances, sooner or later a person who has taken on a new task or goal realizes how much they don’t know about how to successfully accomplish it. At this stage, the learner is struggling and getting no results. They need a manager who can provide high levels of direction and support and will appreciate any help they can get. Again, no worries about micromanaging—the team member needs a plan for how to complete the task. The manager’s job is to provide both direction and support to build the person’s competence, confidence, and commitment to the task.

Development Level 3 is Capable, but Cautious, Contributor. This is the stage where micromanagement may begin to occur. A person has developed some competence for the task at this level—but their confidence and commitment could be taking hits on a regular basis. The good news is the team member has demonstrated they have the skills to do the job. All that is required is for the manager to avoid swooping in with all sorts of direction when what the person really needs is a little confidence and encouragement. A skilled manager will pull back on giving direction, and focus on providing the right amount of support while keeping the direct report firmly in charge of the process.

Development Level 4 is Self-Reliant Achiever. This person has demonstrated complete competence and confidence in their ability to finish the task. They don’t need much in the way of  direction or support. The self-reliant achiever is a true asset to their manager and should be treated as such. A manager’s role at this stage is to help the person grow and develop by providing new challenges and identifying ways for them to share their knowledge with others.

If managers don’t have the time to over-supervise, what’s actually occurring? I’d like to suggest it’s a very specific bad management pattern where managers announce goals at the beginning of the year and leave their people alone until things go wrong. Then they swoop back in, point out where a person is falling short, apply pressure to do better, and leave with little or no real sense of how to support people through the learning process. The repetition of sporadic high direction and low support over the life of a project is a terrible way to develop people. It happens too often and generally leaves a micromanagement aftertaste.

If you are serious about wanting to avoid being labeled a micromanager, Blanchard’s SLII® model offers a proven three-step process on providing the direction and support people need, when they need it, in a way they will appreciate.

Here’s what to do.

  1. Set clear goals. Work together with your people to clearly identify what to work on, what the priority level is, and what a good job looks like. Add as much detail as possible and write it down. Get clear agreement on what they are going to do and when they are going to accomplish it.
  2. Diagnose development level. Take the time to identify a team member’s level of competence on each task. Have they done this task successfully in the past, or will this be their first time? If it’s their first time, you will need to provide a lot of direction. If they’ve already done it successfully, you’ll mostly be responsible for providing support.
  3. Provide a matching leadership style. Meet with your people on a regular basis. Set aside time in your one-on-ones to review goals, check on progress, and provide direction and support as needed. Staying actively engaged with your team members is always welcomed and will never be perceived as micromanaging, as long as you are providing a matching style.

Managing today is a critical, rewarding, and challenging task. As a manager, you have to be efficient with your time to find ways to support your people, help them, your department, and your organization achieve their goals, and get your own work done. Setting clear goals, diagnosing development level, and providing a matching leadership style will help.

To learn more about SLII® and check out free resources, visit the SLII® page on the Blanchard website.

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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