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The Dirty Secrets About Micromanaging

There is a time and place for micromanaging. During significant change, like when a new leader or manager steps in, a direct report is new to a job, or when a big new initiative is being implemented, some level of micromanagement is often necessary. Managers and leaders are responsible for things like level-setting, compliance, efficiency, and just a basic understanding of what everyone does and how they’re doing it. When things are shifting or leaders are trying to get up to speed, a certain degree of micromanaging is warranted. Yes, this is often pretty annoying, but it does not have to be a horrible experience.

Communication is key here. Leaders must be absolutely clear with their direct reports about why they are scrutinizing their work so meticulously, and further that this will not be the longterm practice. Keep the dialogue open and be sympathetic to their frustrations. People will frequently make more mistakes when they feel like someone is always looking over their shoulder. (Have you ever tried typing while someone is looking at your monitor?)

Having said that, micromanaging can go awry. Chronic micromanagers have a hard time letting go. It makes them feel too vulnerable. They might feel like it is their responsibility to have complete control over a broad and expanding scope or work, and ensure that no mistakes are made. Ever!

If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.

A couple things to keep in mind here if you think you might be a chronic micromanager. First, check your ego. You ain’t that special. You don’t get to own everyone’s job even if you are their supervisor. If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.

Second, be more tolerant of risk. Allowing people to fail when the stakes are not critical is vitally important to running a healthy organization. It’s how people learn, grow, and innovate. It’s up to effective leaders to create that environment, and letting go is the first step. Empower other people by giving them ownership of what they do.

There is a more nefarious side to micromanagement as well. There are some people who micromanage because they are empowered by watching their direct reports grow increasingly confused and debilitated over time. The more incompetence they can expose in other people, the more exalted they feel. To the less astute those micromanagers (let’s call them abusive micromanagers) can even appear to be quite impressive. Their supervisors and peers may listen to the abusive micromanager’s litany of frustrations and make the assumption that this person must be highly valuable to be able to carry the weight of so much incompetence on her shoulders. Abusive micromanagers will feed off this attention. It makes them feel like they have more power. And in fact they do. They rob otherwise capable people of their power by picking apart everything they do. The modus operandi here is to obsessively point out when someone else does something wrong, but give no direction on how to do it right or direction that is bewildering or absurd.

It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing.

Being micromanaged can feel like your autonomy is being taken away and your competence questioned. People will feel patronized, belittled, and disrespected. They report feeling acute anxiety and high levels of stress, sometimes to a debilitating degree. This can be particularly true for people who have worked very hard over a number of years to establish themselves as respected experts and professionals in their field. Because these people are good at what they do, but they’re getting feedback that contradicts what they know about themselves to be true, it creates a cognitive dissonance that is crippling. This understandably starts to affect the quality of their work, which in turn supplies the abusive micromanager with real evidence of poor performance. From there it’s just a rapid downward spiral.

It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing. For this reason, when the issue arises within any organization, it should be taken very seriously. Have an open and frank discussion. Consider hiring a trained mediator. Get the chronic micromanager a coach immediately. You can try to develop abusive micromanagers out of the practice, but chances are that person is a narcissist, in which case your best move is to off-board him ASAP.

If you are on the receiving end of that abusive relationship, you already know what you have to do. Hopefully you have resources and a mechanism for reporting abusive behavior and receiving counseling, but first and foremost, you need to start taking steps to get the hell out. Abusive micromanagement is insidious. It’s not like a physical attack that organizations recognize as clear grounds for dismissal. If someone does actually take action to help you, it could mean a prolonged investigation or review of misconduct, which means you may have to suffer through even more abuse as everyone else tries to figure this thing out. Of course a lot of people are in situations where finding another job is a lot easier said than done, but do what you can to take control of the situation. Don’t forget that you do indeed have power. Move on. Do good where they recognize your value and appreciate your contributions.

 

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Of Janitors and CEOs

There are few quotes I despise more than the one that says something like “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO.”

Under what conditions would you need to make this proclamation? What is the objective here? It’s certainly not to make a statement about equity or respect. The point-of-view is first person singular. The subject is “I.” The narrator is just explaining what a swell person he is.

What it also communicates (at least to me) is that the narrator does in fact believe there is a difference between a janitor and a CEO, and one can safely assume that the difference the narrator sees is that the Janitor is less than the CEO. Nonetheless, he’s going to treat them the same despite this difference. But all that is secondary. The primary message you should take away here is that the narrator is a real mensch. Or at least he sure thinks he is.

It’s a great quote for exemplifying what is so often wrong with much of leadership development. It teaches would-be leaders to stroke their own egos rather than showing them how to make a positive impact. Developing yourself as a leader is not about you. It’s about making yourself better equipped to do good for the world around you.

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Is Professional Development Just a Distraction?

We have reached a point in the evolution of leadership and organization effectiveness where we understand the importance of the physical health of the people who work in any given organization. We have OSHA standards, promote health habits, and encourage fitness activities. We know that ensuring well-being is not only the ethical thing to do, it also makes good business sense. People are more productive when they are healthy, and are less likely to call in sick.

Some leaders also understand that health and well-being includes mental health. Employees, for example, may have access to counselors and psychologists. They may be encouraged to maintain a workload that is not overwhelming or occasionally take a mental health day.

What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the importance of professional development for enduring mental health.

People need to learn. We need to be challenged mentally and when we’re not, we become cynical, lethargic, complacent, and depressed. Mental acuity and strength comes from pushing ourselves to continuously learn. That’s what effective professional development does. It gets people mentally fit by pushing them into the unfamiliar, sometimes in ways where it may seem difficult to see how it will directly impact how they do their job.

The type of work people do is irrelevant. Everyone should have access to professional development. People whose jobs are inherently mentally challenging still must have ongoing professional development. Growth happens outside our comfort zone. It is essential that they experience a learning that disrupts their mindset and allows them to see opportunities and problems in a new light.

For those people who do not have jobs that are particularly mentally challenging, opportunities should be provided that keep them mentally fit. It is cruel to expect human beings to go through a full workday without using their minds. That’s why enlightened leaders won’t get bent out of shape if a custodian uses an organization’s resources to learn Italian. Will learning Italian have a direct impact on how effective she is at performing her job? Yes. Yes, it will. She may not actually use Italian in her duties, but she will be a better critical thinker and have a sharper mind when things inevitably go sideways.

If you want people who are engaged at work, are good problem solvers, and drive the whole organization to be better, then you not only promote professional development, you require it.

Don’t baulk if the subject matter doesn’t seem to align directly with the requirements of the job. Explicit application to current duties is secondary. Innovation comes from a place where no one else is looking. Significant leeway should be given on the subject matter that people can choose from for professional development. Ensure that the content and delivery is of a high quality and let people explore.

Being an effective leader and running an enlightened organization means being proactive not reactive. It means continuously striving to create an environment where people can operate at peak performance. That’s a tall order, but that’s why it’s a group effort and an ongoing challenge.

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Voting is Not About You

There has been some great effort to get people to the polls this year. It’s encouraging.

I have noticed, however, a common argument for voting seems to be that a single vote can make all difference. They talk about how close races have been in the past, where very few votes made the difference. NPR, for instance, had an interesting article titled “Why Every Vote Matters—The Elections Decided By A Single Vote (Or A Little More).”

It’s true that sometimes races and decisions can get very close and that can be exciting, but focusing on that misses the point a bit. It devalues the magnitude of what it means to head out to the polls and add your voice.

Voting is important not because you might be the one vote that swings it the way you want it to go. Voting is important because a democracy demands the voice of the people to elect our leaders. It’s not about me the person. It’s about we the people. It’s about us as a municipal, state, national, and global community.

Individualism is important, but perhaps we have strayed too far in our understanding of how we function as a community, and become too focused on our own egos. In a democracy, and in the United States in particular, we as individuals make up something bigger. Our national motto even tells us so.

So when you vote, it’s not a time to think about you. Sure take your selfies (where it’s permitted), broadcast your pride in doing your duty, show other people how good it feels to participate in the process. But remember that this moment is about synergy—when we come together to create something greater than all of us put together.

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Is There a Difference Between Training and Professional Development?

There tends to be a lot of confusion between training and professional development. Most often, those two things are conflated. Other times, people are vaguely aware that they are different things, but they’re just not sure what the distinction is or how to define it.

So first I’ll just make this simple by explaining the difference.

Training is operational. It teaches people how to be competent at their jobs.

Professional development is strategic. It teaches people to excel in areas beyond the status quo. This means acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities that are widely transferable across a jobs and industries. The learning that happens at this level is often conceptual, and requires the learners to put effort into how to apply the content.

Training gets people to be compliant. Professional development gets them committed.

So, why is it important to make this distinction? For one thing, how you teach in these two areas is very different, so if you’re hiring for training, you should not assume that that person can teach professional development, and vice-versa. A good deal of training could be done internally by subject matter experts, but it’s unlikely those people will have any interest or aptitude in teaching professional development. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone is a subject matter expert that they can teach. It’s a common problem in the workplace, like assuming that someone will be a good supervisor because they’re good at their current job.

Another reason to make the distinction between training and professional development has to do with funding and budgets. If you don’t make the distinction between training and professional development, all funding will just default to training, and professional development will go by the wayside. Because training is necessary to just get the work done right, training will often override any need for strategic growth.

When managers or leaders are asked what they’re doing for professional development, sometimes they will proudly quote some exorbitant dollar figure, but the reality is all that money is just going toward making sure people know how to do their jobs. Little to no investment is being made for continuous learning; that is, teaching people how to be better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators.

Obviously people need to know how to do their jobs, but after that, it is equally important that they continue to learn. In the same way you want a business to continually improve, you also want the people who make that business run to continuously improve, and that’s where professional development comes in. High performers will gravitate toward professional development (after they’ve gone through training) because professional development requires discretionary effort. They want to be better and do better, and they hunger for knowledge.

As I wrote above, training ensures that people are compliant, and compliance is necessary. But when you provide learning opportunities to your people that open their minds and allow them to explore an envision bold new ideas, that’s when they get committed. When people are committed to an organization, and only when they are committed, can great things happen.