Emerging Tech

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.

14 comments
Communication22
Communication22

I'm with the "against" premise in situations that require immediate information to resolve a problem. For instance, health care workers need timely instant communication in order to complete their jobs.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Third floor says I'm right and Wikipedia is wrong.Here's the print out.

patrick
patrick

I do not see why IM, cell phones, and PDAs should cause management and communication issues. It is not because you have any or all of the above that you end up micromanaging or that your team becomes less autonomous. All our employees have free cable internet and cell phones but only a few have PDAs. I have all 3 and I operate by the following rules: 1. My IM is given to a selected few (my PMs). 2. My cell phone/PDA is always on but at vibrate. If it vibrates enough there is a potential crisis and I'll check my emails and voice mail. 3. A crisis warrants a phone call. There are no email crisis 3. If someone needs me during the day they get up and come see me. I do the same. No emails in the office except as a matter of record. Micromanaging is a maturity thing in most cases. There are times (when in a crisis) when micromanaging might be waranted but otherwise I leave my team decide and I monitor.

Meesha
Meesha

Organizational culture is definitely part of the issue - either good or bad. If the organization does not respect employee/employer boundaries, i.e. 7/24 Blackberries, pagers, etc. then what autonomy was there in the first place? Each individual has their own way of working - some work with greater efficiency when properly guided and managed on the minutia while the individual at the polar opposite would constantly bang heads with that sort of guidance and would be less productive. The stratagem as a leader or manager would be to provide balance. Technology as all things not human are just tools and should never be seen or used as more than that. My instant communication devices and methods are controlled by me and not the other way around. I know when to shut it off and when it's important not to. I respect my employees boundaries and would never presume to contact them off hours unless it's stipulated in their service agreement with the organization. During business hours I clearly outline how I want to be contacted or not and how I would need to contact them. We are after all adults and working professionals. If common sense does not prevail then why create, develop and use progressive technology at all? Let's go back to the communications of yesteryear - pony riders, stone tablets, drums, smoke signals, troubadours, oh my!

seemenow
seemenow

one thing that having cell phones, etc. does do is allow managers to have no sense of limits with others. if you have a cell phone, it is open for use anytime from co-workers, regardless of the job hours. and most times, this is seen as something the worker should welcome and have no issues with in order to get ahead. one must be available by cell any time. and, most times...phone costs are not reimbursed.

cory.schultze
cory.schultze

The manager and their subordinates should work as a single unit - a team. To work in IT, you should have a reasonable level of logic and initiative; if the subordinate is not competent to work autonomously, the manager has not trained them successfully or the subordinate lacks initiative or beleif in themselves. My manager is on-site most of the time, but when he is away from the office, we can contact him by email or phone on the PDA. It's a rare occasion we do, because if we're unsure, we communicate with eachother before consulting the manager if needs be. I've been in IT for 3 and a half years now, where I started as a trainee support tech. Thanks to our common-sense approach to training and communication, I can be a redundancy to my superiors in their absence and I'm ready for a position with greater responsibility. Progress is achieved through persistence and tact - with the correct development plan, most subordinates can become autonomous - regardless of the method of communication, just ensure you communicate effectively.

Ramon Padilla Jr.
Ramon Padilla Jr.

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?

adam.howard500
adam.howard500

I can see both arguments. I definitely agree that micromanagement is not a recent thing. Ultimately, this comes from a quirk (or even flaw) in the manager and/or the staff member(s). There have always been micromanagers and there forever will be, even if an EMP wipes out all technology and puts us back to, oh the steam age (to be a bit positive about this). However, I also agree that instant communication can make it easier to micromanage. Personally, I think micromanagement is more prevalent now because a lot of people who are "borderline" now see it as relatively easy to micromanage. Without instant communications, these people would likely not have micromanaged as it is too much work. However, with the technology, these people now see it much easier (and possibly safer) to micromanage. So, that's what they do. Technology is not totally responsible, because the person had to have micromanagement tendencies to begin with; otherwise they wouldn't do it. But for those who may be "borderline", it can put them over the edge.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

"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." IMO, micromanagement is symptomatic of several deep-seated needs and/or problems in self-perception belonging to the micromanager. The tools for instantaneous communication are simply extra-ordinarily appropriate tools for the micromanager. Again, IMO This applies equally to the needy subordinate.

NexS
NexS

He, however, has no relevance.

d_kelly120020
d_kelly120020

Technology is a management tool. Like any tool, it can be either used or mis-used.

NexS
NexS

As should you.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is sad when you have none. We all look that in the eye. The older, as a matter of course. The younger -- they need to keep looking behind and in front. Where do you look?