Micro-Managing: Is It Always Bad?

Previously, I argued that it can be disabling to hold people accountable for results. In principle, the main reason for this is that one only has power over what one gives or contributes. Therefore, to hold someone accountable for results means focusing their attention on things they have no power over. It literally disables them.

However, finding exactly what people contribute is not always easy to identify, and this problem becomes even more pronounced the further up the hierarchy one goes. In my experience, I have found that senior people in organisations have a very interesting excuse for their own lack of knowledge of what their subordinates are really up to. They label such an interest as micro-managing. They feel it is not their job to involve themselves or meddle in the job of their subordinates, but rather, to ensure that the subordinates achieve the required results. In summary, this means that the manager’s job is to hold subordinates accountable for results.

Empowering Subordinates

A useful metaphor for distinguishing a manager from a leader, is to examine the relationship between the coach and the athlete in a team sport like rugby. Intent is the first element that should be questioned. In the manager’s view, he uses people in order to achieve a result, which is what he is held accountable for. The fundamental transactional implication of this is that the subordinate’s experience is that the boss is there to get something from them, and their natural reaction is to engage in a haggle.

However, in a team sport, it’s clear that both playing the game as well as the achievement of a result is the concern of the player, and the coach’s job is to enable the player. This doesn’t mean that the coach has no interest in the score or the game but these are his means to do his job, which is to coach the player. By shifting the focus of the relationship with the player from achieving a result through him, to using the result to enable him, the player then experiences that the coach is giving him something. The transaction is received as benevolent.

In other words, a manager uses people as his means in order to get a result and is therefore taking from them. A leader on the other hand, uses the results and the task as the means whereby he enables his people and is therefore in the relationship to give them something.

It’s worth noting that it would be quite difficult for the coach to do his job if he wasn’t watching the game. He certainly wouldn’t be able to do his job if the only information he had was the result. In short, the time that a leader spends getting acquainted with what his subordinate is really doing, is a necessary precondition for him to do his job.

The Issue Of Accountability

Empowerment implies three key variables, and we’ll use the fishing metaphor to show this. It is concerned with:

  • Giving the person the means to fish (the rod, line, and hook etc.)
  • The ability to fish (the skill and knowledge to do so)
  • The accountability to fish

Specifically, a leader needs to give their subordinates the means, ability and accountability to do their job.

The practical implication of this is the following: Assume we are dealing with an operator of an extrusion machine at a plastics manufacturing concern. Clearly, the operator should be accountable for running his machine according to specification. The problem becomes apparent when one seeks to discover what his supervisor should be held accountable for. In most factories the supervisor’s key accountability is to produce the results required of his section.

However, the results occur precisely because the operator runs his machine according to specification. So, the supervisor does not “do the results”, he does other things. Instead, what he should do is to provide the operator with the means, ability and accountability to run the machine so that when the machine does not run according to specification and therefore the results are bad, the fix that the supervisor should implement is not to get the results up. Rather, he should establish why the operator is not running his machine according to specification. Is this a means problem or an ability problem? If these two variables are not at fault, then the supervisor should hold the operator accountable.

Because the supervisor’s manager is only interested in the result, he has no way of knowing whether the supervisor is dealing appropriately with the poor performance of the operator. So, the question is, what should the manager be contributing in this case? It should be to provide the supervisor with the means, ability and accountability to make the contribution, which he should make. So, let’s assume that the poor performance of the operator is neither an ability or a means problem. The supervisor should therefore be holding the operator accountable for his performance. However, does the supervisor have the means to do this? Has he got the authority to discipline? Are there clear standards for discipline in the organisation? Is the supervisor able to discipline people? Does he know how the disciplinary process works?

Should the supervisor have both the means and the ability to discipline then he should be held accountable for not disciplining his subordinate, not for the fact that the results were bad. In fact, the focus on the result creates the condition where both the supervisor and the manager crowd around the machine to get the results out while the operator stands in the corner smoking a cigarette!

Furthermore, just as the supervisor should be held accountable for providing his subordinate with the means, ability and accountability to do his job, so too should the manager be held accountable for doing the same things with his subordinate. This logically creates the conditions where every person in the line is held appropriately accountable for what they can contribute. This way of looking at accountability therefore establishes the conditions where line groups are in the position to focus on issues which are appropriate at their level in the hierarchy. Not to follow this logic creates the condition where line bosses function several levels below where they should be, which is the key problem in most enterprises today.


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