Who Says Micromanagement Is Bad?

Micromanagement usually refers to inappropriately close observation and control of a subordinate's work by a manager. This interpretation derives chiefly from the prefix micro, which means "small" in Greek. In this context, small refers to overemphasis on the little details of employees' work, by implication at the expense of the bigger picture. Micromanagers simply have too much unhelpful contact with employees and use that contact in the wrong ways.

Towers Watson data suggest that the truth is more complex, however. In a 2009 survey of more than 20,000 employees in 22 countries, we asked respondents to assess the effectiveness of their immediate managers. Using their responses to a series of manager performance questions, we identified some of the ways effective managers differ from ineffective ones.

One key differentiator is time allocation. The best managers take a different approach to juggling their leadership, production, and administrative duties. As a result, they actually have more face-to-face time with employees than do their less-effective peers. Seventy-five percent of respondents who said they have effective managers interact with them at least daily, compared with 62 percent of those who judged their managers to be less effective. Employees who say they have effective managers also feel more comfortable working independently. Hence, a paradox: Better managers have more contact with their people, which makes employees feel more capable of working with less manager contact.

Customizing Individual Jobs

The best managers, in other words, act like micromanagers—they spend more time with employees, not less. So why don't employees perceive this extra attention as micromanagement? Both Towers Watson data and our consulting experience suggest it comes down to how the effective managers use their time: They don't just get work done. Instead, they match tasks with individuals' personalities and abilities.

And this attention to customizing individual jobs does not pertain only to knowledge workers. Research has shown that people in such diverse jobs as nurses, secretaries, and factory workers can benefit from personalization. For instance, one study divided hospital custodians into two groups. One group followed the standard job description, which involved little interaction with patients and other staff. They defined their job as cleaning—nothing more. Members of a second group went out of their way to interact with patients, visitors, and others in their unit. These people saw themselves as playing an important role in patients' experience. And they probably didn't think they were being micromanaged by the supervisors who helped them redefine their work.

So how do supervisors micromanage the right way?

They don't just coach employees. Some manager coaching styles can leave employees feeling stifled and patronized. Good managers, in contrast, help employees establish a constellation of learning contacts. The more we study how learning takes place in organizations, the more we understand that employees benefit from having access to multiple sources of advice, counsel, and knowledge via a confidante, mentor, or discreet manager from another department.

They don't empower people. Instead, they foster autonomy. Empowerment is a zero-sum game, where the manager's power diminishes by the amount given to the employee. Autonomy refers to something subtly but importantly different. Essentially, it means self-rule. Rather than subdividing a given quantity of power, autonomy adds to the total amount of power available to do work. Fostering autonomy requires managers to recognize and support individuals' discretion and control in deciding how to do their work. Employees who take intellectual ownership of their jobs are more likely to feel stimulated and engaged and less likely to feel suffocated by managerial attention.

They don't just administer organizational reward programs. Rather, they play a key role in delivering a fair and engaging "deal" to employees. Towers Watson global research shows that, more than ever before, employees believe they must be self-reliant when it comes to ensuring that their deal with the organization yields value to them commensurate with their investment of ability and effort. When we asked who has primary responsibility for career management and other key elements of their deal with the organization, respondents to our global study responded overwhelmingly, "I do." Our survey results showed that among employees:

75 percent say they, not their companies, have primary responsibility for their financial future.

57 percent say they must provide for their own retirement income.

51 percent agree that they have the principal responsibility for addressing their health-care needs.

76 percent agree that they have the main responsibility for ensuring their individual health and well-being.

What is the manager's role in supporting the exchange of value between individual and organization? Effective managers act as brokers, ensuring that engaged employees contribute to business success and that the business provides commensurate rewards. They also translate, making the enterprise strategy clear to employees in ways that apply to their own work. Most important, they are architects. They construct individualized reward portfolios, using such elements as learning opportunities, project assignments, and organizational network introductions to ensure that each employee has a deal customized for his or her personal needs and circumstances.

How then should we reinterpret the notion of managing small? First, as suitably precise, rather than too detailed or stifling. Second, as efficiently calibrated for people who work autonomously but who nevertheless need occasional support, guidance, and information. Finally, as appropriately frequent, rather than infrequent. Positive micromanagement focuses on what people want and need from managers, rather than on what managers must do to feel in charge. Avoiding micromanagement by drawing back and adopting a laissez faire approach is the wrong response. The right response is to remain supportive and available but away from center stage. Employees are the main actors in the workplace drama; managers should remain in the wings, offering advice and direction when employees say they need it. Under this redefined form of micromanagement, an able manager attends to the right small things so that self-directed employees can take charge of the big ones.

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