How to help (without micromanaging) (2023)


Extensive research shows that employees who receive hands-on support from management perform better than when left alone, but unnecessary or unwanted help can be demoralizing and counterproductive. So how do you intervene constructively?

The authors share three important lessons they've learned from 10 years of study: (1) only intervene when people are busy with a challenging task and are willing to accept help; (2) make it clear that your role is to offer help, not to take responsibility for the project or to judge anyone; and (3) adapt the pace of your engagement to the staff's needs and determine whether the situation calls for intensive short-term mentoring or intermittent street cleaning over a longer period. These strategies are especially valuable for helping physically separated teams, like many during the current pandemic.

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"Micromanagement" is a dirty word in today's workplace. Bosses who interfere too much or too much in their subordinates' activities get a bad rap, and most forward-thinking companies value employee autonomy over supervision. Research shows that people have strong negative emotional and physiological responses to unnecessary or unwanted help and that this can damage interpersonal relationships. Even US Army General George S. Patton, leader of one of the most traditional command and control groups in the world, recognized the danger of micromanagement: He famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they'll surprise you with their ingenuity."

However, managers must not be completely laissez-faire, especially when subordinates are not located, as is the case for many during the global Covid-19 pandemic. People who perform complex tasks often need more than superficial advice or encouragement; They need support that is timely and appropriate to their issues, and providing it can be challenging without opportunities for casual encounters in a brick-and-mortar office. Extensive research shows that broad helping in an organization correlates with better performance than allowing employees to do it themselves. So how can you give subordinates the support they need without undermining their sense of effectiveness and independence?

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Over the past 10 years, we've studied how leaders effectively offer help without being seen as micromanagers. We observed and spoke with people at several companies, including a leading strategic consulting firm (we call it ConsultCo), where we interviewed partners who were cited by senior management as outstanding practice leaders. At a design consultancy known for its culture of helping (pseudonym: GlowDesign), we did alarge-scale qualitative studythrough diaries and weekly in-depth interviews with aid donors and recipients. And we walked twobehavioral experimentsin the lab examined how 124 groups responded to interventions at different times when asked to make decisions about opening a fictional restaurant.

Together, these projects provided important insights into how managers can best serve their employees. As a starting point, your employees need to know that you are willing to offer help, and they need to feel comfortable when you ask. In addition, you should have a basic understanding of your job and its challenges, as well as the time and energy you can dedicate. But how and when to roll up your sleeves to interfere with employees' work? We found three key strategies for being a hands-on boss, not a micromanager: (1) schedule your help to arrive when people are ready, (2) make it clear that your job is to help, and (3) match the pace of your engagement, your intensity. and frequency, with people's specific needs.

Plan your help wisely

When you're involved in your employees' work, time is important, but not in the way you'd expect. Conventional wisdom suggests that avoiding potential problems is the best strategy (remember Benjamin Franklin's famous saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"). However, we found that leaders seen as the most helpful do not try to anticipate every problem or intervene as soon as they identify one. Instead, they watch and listen until they believe their subordinates see the need for help and are willing to listen carefully. They understand that people are more willing to accept help when they are already committed to a task or project and have experienced the challenges firsthand.

GlowDesign, where we spent two years researching executive helping behaviors, provides some vivid examples. In one case, a manager encountered an understaffed team and discovered what he believed were key project scope issues. But instead of jumping right in with advice and action, he simply told project lead Violet that he was available. (All names in this article are pseudonyms.) "I offered to help her," she told us, but "it took Violet a while to figure out what she could use me for." of important issues.

Known as great helpers, ConsultCo employees were equally careful in timing their help. One of the company's partners, Adriana, described her approach when some of her employees were struggling with their jobs. He told us before he even met them: “I thought the team was on the wrong track. [But] when I walked into the room, I heard it. I limited my questions to clarifying questions to make sure I understood what they were saying. There are two reasons why I did this. First, they are smart people, and I have enough respect for them, even the younger ones in the company, to know that their work is very valuable... Second, I thought they would be more willing to [reconsider their ideas] if they had a chance to explain what they are doing first.” By the end of the meeting, the team seemed ready to make suggestions to Adriana, and she did.

Our experimental research examining these 124 business decision makers confirmed the importance of helping at the right time. We found that when counseling in the context of teamworkafterproblems arose earlier than before, the members understood and appreciated it more. This led them to take advantage of help, improve their processes, share more information, and make objectively better decisions than groups that received more guidance early in their discussions.

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What motivates employees to accept help can vary from situation to situation. However, we advise managers not to provide any information without first giving their supervisors an overview of the task and their opinion about it. In many cases, a timely cure can be better than a little bit of prevention.

Make it clear that your role is to help

Even when the timing is right, an intervention can go wrong if it's not clear why you're intervening. Managers play many different roles, and their responsibilities include evaluating employees and handing out rewards and punishments. These power dynamics can impede effective help. When bosses intervene, their involvement can mean people are making a big mistake. For this reason, employees often remain silent or downplay issues and do not seek advice. They can be indifferent to help, defensive or demoralized, which undermines creativity and achievement. So, as one GlowDesign executive told us, managers have to be careful: “You don't go in there and create so much fear that you end up in a worse situation… , he's really unhappy with what we're doing.'”

Because seeking and receiving help can make people feel very vulnerable, managers need to clarify their roles in intervening in employees' work. They should explain that they are there to help, not to judge or take responsibility. You need to encourage what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson is asking forpsychological safety—an environment in which interpersonal risk is encouraged.

The importance of this framework was clear at GlowDesign. We found that leaders identified as particularly helpful went to great lengths to convince their subordinates that they were intervening for one reason only: to support their subordinates' work. Imagine what happened when a team tasked with one of the company's biggest projects was hampered by the personal issues of several members. Project lead Aaron emailed Gary, one of Glow's senior partners, asking for advice. Gary was the main customer contact at the company, but Aaron knew little about him and was surprised when he offered to fly from Chicago to New York to help. Many people would be reluctant to accept such an offer, fearing that top executives would not trust them. But Gary carefully emphasized that he would not replace Aaron as responsible. "I'm not here to change the project," he said. "I'm just here to help you... to be your crutch."

How to help (without micromanaging) (1) natalia leu

Throughout our research, we found that when managers made their intentions clear, as Gary did, employees were more open about the problems they faced and more willing to accept help and work together to solve them. Don't assume that employees concerned about performance reviews and compensation can identify your intentions. No matter how supportive you are as a boss, they will remember that part of your job is to monitor and evaluate them. Then, as you begin to become more involved in their work, reassure them that you are there as a consultant, not an evaluator. Make it clear what you want to achieve with your intervention.

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Match the pace of your engagement to people's needs

To provide helpful assistance to people, managers must take the time to fully understand employee issues, especially when dealing with sensitive issues. When the work is complex, creative and cognitively demanding, you have to put in a lot of effort. But that means more than helping with the right content. It also means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for recipients. We call this the engagement rate and it depends on whether employees have a needguideshort-term or intermittentstreet cleaningfor a longer period.

Directed leadership is needed when employees encounter obstacles that cannot be overcome with quick feedback or a few hours of input. In these scenarios, leaders work closely with subordinates in long, crowded meetings over several days. This might sound like the definition of micromanagement. In fact, managers who helped in this way without ensuring that their people were prepared and without clarifying their role as helpers were seen as taking over. Employees felt let down, with the result that morale and performance suffered. But when managers started with the other strategies we've described, this kind of deep, time-consuming help was most welcome.

For example, Hazel, senior manager at GlowDesign, successfully led a team on their journey from the research phase of a project to the design phase. Although he had participated in a brainstorming session early on, he didn't intervene until the team leader asked for help. She agreed, but spent the first day listening and asking questions to better understand the project and ensure the team was ready to hear from her. On days two and three, he proposed a framework to help everyone identify and communicate their key points, articulate ideas, and move forward. His intense engagement for a short period was not seen as a threat or as a comment on the team's performance. Instead, he relieved the pressure tremendously. Furthermore, it marked a turning point for the project: the work carried out during those three days became the basis for the presentation to the client, which led to orders for several other projects.

With the second form of help, cleaning, managers offer help at shorter intervals when employees are faced with persistent problems. For example, if your team is short-handed, you can pop in for about half an hour every few days to help out when needed, whether it's taking an important customer call or ordering lunch during a long work session.

Road cleaners have enough general project knowledge to understand emerging needs, but rarely delve into the core work. Instead, they look for smaller ways to relieve their subordinates. In this way, Kaya, a partner at ConsultCo, helped team members who were so busy meeting customer needs that they barely had time to update them on what was going on. He found ways to alleviate them in short, sparse bursts: talking to people about their concerns, cleaning up the team's shared calendar, and managing the logistics of client meetings.

Leaders who try this approach shouldn't underestimate the importance of staying current at work. Those who don't may offer only cursory criticism or vague advice when it comes up, interactions Glow's designers wryly call "snooping and pooping." So stay on top of the issues your employees are facing and take action when you see roadblocks that can be cleared.

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. . .

Our research suggests that leaders can practically and meaningfully help their employees without being accused of micromanaging by paying close attention to timing, articulating their helping role early on, and adjusting the pace of their support to recipients' needs. These guidelines are especially important when teams are physically separated, as many are during the ongoing pandemic. When employees are out of the office, managers are more likely to call too often and interrupt their colleagues' workflow, or go offline and let employees down. People who work from home or elsewhere can easily feel isolated, confused, or even abandoned. Therefore, being a hands-on manager in these situations is crucial. Not only does this improve employee performance, it also allows people to feel supported and connected.

However, interfering with your team's work by ignoring any of our policies could render your help ineffective or even harmful, potentially worse than doing nothing. Offering cautionary advice can prevent people from realizing its value. If you don't define your role, subordinates can feel threatened and undermined. And using the wrong pace, especially not allowing enough time to be an effective leader or a clearer path, can lead to superficial or unfocused feedback, or being perceived as bossy and inspiring cynicism rather than gratitude. However, you can easily avoid these micromanagement pitfalls. Follow the three strategies we've outlined and become a boss who truly helps employees when they need it most.

A version of this article appeared atJanuary to February 2021thing ofHarvard Business Review.


1. How Leaders Avoid Micromanaging
(Front Line Leadership)
2. How to Manage Without Micromanaging
(Vicky Brown - Leader's Journey)
3. MY BOSS IS A MICROMANAGER | How to deal with micromanagers
(Jennifer Brick)
4. How to handle a micromanaging boss without losing your job
(Dave Crenshaw)
5. How To Deal With Making A New Hire And Managing Without Micromanaging?
(Productivity Academy)
6. Full Webinar: How to Align and Guide Your Team (Without Micromanaging Them)
(SME Strategy Consulting)


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