Innovation

Instant communication encourages less autonomous workers

The introduction of instant communication via cell phone, PDA, web, etc. has encouraged management to micromanage, has taken away responsibility and autonomy from workers, and has created a culture in which actions are not taken unless given explicit authority thus squashing initiative and self reliance up and down the organizational hierarchy.

I had an interesting discussion with some colleagues yesterday regarding the effects of instant communication on management, leadership and employee capabilities. It was so lively that I thought I would share it with you the best I can and let you join in.

Here is the premise: The introduction of instant communication via cell phone, PDA, web, etc. has encouraged management to micromanage, has taken away responsibility and autonomy from workers, and has created a culture in which actions are not taken unless given explicit authority thus squashing initiative and self reliance up and down the organizational hierarchy.

Now that I have given you the premise, here are the arguments for and against:

For: In the days prior to instantaneous communication, managers had to trust their employees to make decisions and take actions on their own without the "guiding hand of the cell phone." This discouraged micromanagement as managers were forced to let their subordinates act in order to get anything accomplished in a timely manner. Micromanagement without instantaneous communication would lead to failed deadlines and would catch up with the manager sooner or later, thus facilitating a change in behavior or an ousting of the manager.

Furthermore, managers were more apt to hire/promote individuals into decision making positions based on their ability to "think on their feet" and the degree of common sense and initiative they showed.

At the same time, employees did not have the "crutch" of instantaneous communications or the smothering of an "always on" manager thus freeing or forcing them to think and act independently.

The participants in the discussion then took the opportunity to list examples where subordinates showed a lack of initiative or ability to think and act independently or where their own management micromanaged them. Since all the participants were managers, none blamed themselves for micromanagement until they were called out on it, at which time they owned up to it <grin>.

Against: There were those at the table (the discussion occurred during lunch) that completely disagreed with the premise that instantaneous communication was at fault and noted that managers have been micromanaging long before cell phones and connected PDAs were prevalent and that instantaneous communications is just a whipping boy for mismanagement and poor hiring practices.

They argued that better communication has resulted in faster response time due to instant management approval as opposed to having to wait for management approval and that the things that required approval pre-instant communications are the same types of things that require management approval now.

They also argued that today's worker is better trained and that any lack of initiative or autonomy is a management issue not caused by technology but by people.

Lastly there were those at the table that saw it both ways. Basically saying that instant communications, like many technological advancements, is an enabler of behavior that can be good or bad and that if a manager has micromanagement tendencies, it will allow him/her to do so to a higher degree. Conversely, if an employee has tendencies to avoid autonomy or is put into a situation where it is discouraged, then those will be exacerbated as well. In either case, no one at the table had any hard data to prove the point one way or another.

My personal opinion is that instant communication has probably led to an erosion of autonomy and an increase in micromanagement to a certain degree, yet is offset by the benefits of having accurate and timely information at your disposal if necessary. My belief is that once proximity was eliminated as a barrier, the tendency for a manager, including myself, to "check in" can occur more frequently than it should. Conversely, once staff knows you are online at all times, decisions that could be made on their own suddenly can be "validated" prior to implementation so no risk is taken by a subordinate. I try curb both of these behaviors, in me and in my subordinates, letting them know that I trust them to do their jobs but if in doubt - ask.

So what do you think? Do instant communications lead to less autonomous workers and more micromanagement in your environment? Would you be more productive if you were less accessible and conversely, would you be more responsible/independent if left alone more?

Bottom Line for IT leaders

Instant messaging is a great tool for communicating with your staff, but you have to decide if its use leads to micromanagement and all the negative consequences of that.

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