Forget Micromanaging, Hands-Off Leadership Could Hurt Workers More


Laura Vanderkam

August 18, 2016

Hovering isn’t terribly helpful, but hands-off management can hurt the team even more.

No one likes to be micromanaged. But when it comes to leadership, going too far in the opposite direction can be just as bad.

That’s the conclusion Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson reached in their new book, Stop Spending, Start Managing. By examining various wasteful habits that lead organizations to spend lots of money on consultants and lots of time on needless meetings, the authors identify what they call “The Macromanagement Trap.” This involves “assuming your employees don’t need your direction.”

This hands-off approach is perhaps more dangerous than micromanagement, says Menon, a professor at Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University, because people don’t necessarily perceive it as a flaw. Indeed, “A lot of the words that go along with it sounds so good,” she says. No one will ever admit to micromanaging, but managers will say proudly that “I empower people, I believe in participation, I’m all for freedom.”

Everyone Hates Uncertainty

The problem is that “all these things end up translating into too much freedom, chaos, and not doing the work of management,” she says. People get annoyed by hovering, but workplace research shows that “what’s most psychologically painful of all is uncertainty, confusion, and not being able to predict what’s going to happen.” A study from Arizona State University reached a similar conclusion that hands-off leadership could derail employees.

As a leader, you need to find a balance between the two extremes. To do that, first recognize which direction you are tilting. If you’re asking to be cc’d on every email, you’re probably in the micromanagement camp.

Macromanagement problems, on the other hand, often manifest themselves in overworked employees. Teams spin their wheels. They produce results that are miles from what you envisioned, and not in a good way. Teams experience conflict over processes and expectations. There’s a lot of frenzy before deadlines. “You’re putting a whole lot of work and effort into things and not getting any results,” notes Menon.

If that’s the case, recognize that more intensive management isn’t about not trusting your employees. Indeed, “smart individuals need more management in a sense,” says Menon. They’ll work hard and fast in any direction they’re pointed, so if they’re not pointed in the right direction, they’ll travel farther from the results you need than a more lackluster team.

Also, it’s a fallacy that “great individuals lead to a great team.” For evidence, consider the 2004 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. Despite a roster of stars including LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson, they finished with a disappointing bronze medal and lost a few embarrassing games.

Managing A Good Party

Instead, the function of a good manager, like a good coach, is to set group norms and structures. “If you get a whole bunch of people in a brainstorming session without ground rules, you get chaos,” says Menon, a fact that other research bears out. A hands-on leader can help teams figure out how they will deal with conflict between members, and what they will do if they get stuck. “A leader must be comfortable stepping in and helping the group get through these kinds of crises,” she says.

So think of yourself as a coach managing group dynamics. Check in on progress. And to avoid having anyone feel like you’re micromanaging, ask for guidance. Good ways to approach staff include: “Where can I give you more clarity?” or “Help me know how I can help you.”

The goal is to remember that “collaboration is like a good party,” as Menon’s coauthor, Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, puts it. People show up at the right time, wearing the right thing, and bringing the right things, because the host has established norms. The macromanagement trap involves hoping for the best. With good leadership, on the other hand, you establish an environment where you know people will flourish.

This article was written by Laura Vanderkam from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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