Measure out your criticism to avoid the 'micromanager' label

Micromanaging your staff is a surefire way to breed resentment and a lack of productivity. Use these specific suggestions to fight off the urge to comment on every little thing your team does.

Question:  A recent letter I received from a TechRepublic member asked, “How do I deal with a boss who is always finding fault and micromanaging? No matter what the task is, she finds fault. She's new to the company, and in nearly a year the only positive thing she has ever said to me was to compliment my hairstyle. We have brought projects in on time and under budget, but she only complains.”

Answer:  I really don’t have any advice for the letter writer here, but I can tell managers this: The most disastrous team meltdowns I’ve ever seen have taken root in employees’ resentment over micromanaging, either real or perceived.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to warn managers against the unlimited damage micromanaging can do to a team’s dynamic. (My former colleague Mark Kimbell wrote a good column on this topic not too long ago.) Nobody likes to be told what to do, and if you’re constantly telling your team members how to execute their daily responsibilities, they are going to get angry and begin assuming the worst intentions on your part. This resentment will fester into a hotbed for conspiracy theory, and then everything you do will be viewed through a distorted lens of suspicion.

I’ve found the best tactic for avoiding the micromanaging trap is to let your team members know in advance that from time to time you are going to be checking on their progress, and then basically sticking to that informal “contract” you’ve made with them. Of course, you can never renounce your prerogative to intercede in a situation that’s just not working, and you need to make that clear to your team up front. But by keeping track of how much criticizing you’re doing on a daily basis, you can send yourself helpful red flags when you begin to reach the micromanaging threshold.

Managing your micromanaging tendencies
I’m personally so paranoid about micromanaging that I’ve come up with ratios I use to deliver criticism to my teams.

Praise about 70 percent of the time; criticize about 30 percent of the time. Our letter writer noted that she’s never been praised for her work, only criticized. Bad stuff just jumps out at you, but you need to keep track of your team members’ accomplishments and let them know that you appreciate their work. If that 30 percent criticism threshold seems a little low, just remember that even constructive criticism stings a little more than praise—30 percent is plenty. If you find yourself needing to constantly criticize an employee’s performance, it’s either time to realign your expectations or begin an employee performance plan. If you can’t think of criticisms for an employee, you need to find some new growth areas where constructive criticisms will build skills.

Make sure that 80 percent of your criticism focuses on mission-critical team functions. Not everything your team does is so important that it needs to be done to precision. Identify your team’s key deliverables and functions, and focus your criticisms on those “macro” issues. In areas that aren’t mission critical, let your team members make their own decisions, even if they are not exactly the same calls you would make yourself. You simply don’t need to edit every meeting minutes e-mail or status report; that’s the working definition of micromanaging.

Criticize in structured sessions about 80 percent of the time; criticize on the fly about 20 percent of the time. I am a devout believer in one-on-one sessions, partly because they give team members a chance to prepare themselves for the sting of criticism. As a working manager, you are going to see things in meetings and status checks that need an encouraging word or two, but try to use private, scheduled sessions as your primary method for delivering both criticism and praise. On a day-to-day basis, just let your guys do their jobs.

Be sure to deliver about 10 percent of your criticism in real time. The great risk of trying to refrain from micromanaging is that you’ll send an implicit message to your team that you somehow don’t have the prerogative to manage them on a daily basis. It’s a tightrope act, for sure, and I’ve found that regularly popping into the team’s daily functions to see what’s happening is a good way to build up calluses on your team’s ego. I once had an employee—as smart and conscientious an employee as you could ever want—tell me that a simple status check on a daily process that had burped was a major breach of trust. Don’t be capricious in choosing where to insert yourself, and be sure to establish it as a part of the team’s established routine.

Deliver 0 percent of your criticism behind closed doors with other employees. This one is probably the most insidious trap that managers fall into. Never criticize an employee in front of another team member in “confidence.” It’s so easy to do—an employee comes to you with a gripe about a teammate, you say something like “yeah, Joe can be a little difficult,” and then when the rumor mill has finished grinding your comment, you stand convicted of broadcasting to the whole company how much you can’t stand Joe. It seems crazy on the surface, but it always happens.

Make sure that approximately 50 percent of criticism about your team comes from the team itself. Create a culture of self-evaluation through postmortem critique sessions and other team functions. Many complaints of micromanagement are rooted in basic resentment of any kind of criticism. When your team is looking for ways to improve its own performance, you get the benefit of the most educated opinions possible. And you don’t always have to be the bad guy.

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About Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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