Micro-Manage or Hands-Off? Think “Goldilocks” and Your Approach Will Be Just Right!
Recently, I was asked about which kind of leaders are better-micro-managers or hands off managers. To be quite frank, my initial thought was, “Neither one is effective” and for a moment I just wanted to dismiss the question. However, this topic is fairly thought-provoking and seems to garner lots of debate on social media and discussion boards, so why not weigh in on it.
Let me preface the rest of content by pointing out that I have tried both methods at some point in my career. In doing so, I gained firsthand experience with real people in actual work situations. My thoughts aren’t deeply rooted in psychological or leadership theory nor speculation-they are the result of trial and error in business settings where I was leading a team of direct reports or who were indirectly responsible for delivering results that I was accountable for. It is my hope that you can learn something from my experience and choose whichever methods may work best for you.
Think of this as the “hand hold” leadership style. What is one of the first things most adults say to young child when they are in a crowded public place or crossing a street? “Hold my hand, please? I want to make sure you are safe and nothing happens to you.” This is a similar behavior that happens with micro-managers. There is a tendency to want to hold their team members’ hands. This usually manifests itself through giving explicit and detailed direction to individuals into how something should be done, incessant hovering and follow up to ensure that it is being done as requested and chastising for any deviations from directions. This style is a literal stronghold over the individual and is a recipe for failure. Unfortunately, I know this from experience as I took this approach in my first management position. I genuinely believed I was serving my team members well. After all, my suggestions were designed with the best intentions….. to deliver outstanding results. However, over time, I had to own up to the reality that my controlling behavior was more about my success than that of others. In fact, stated more accurately, it was about my fear of failure and looking bad. I was so certain I was the only one I could trust to do the job correctly that I inadvertently squeezed my team member’s hands so tightly, I paralyzed them. Micromanaging removed their ability to utilize their skills, creativity and talent. Not only did this cause them to gradually disengage, it increased my personal work load and stress! Definitely not a winning leadership style for me, nor for any people leader!
This is the “hands-off” approach to leading people. It is similar to handing a teenager the keys to the car and saying “Drive” with no guidance or instructions. While this approach may work well for individual who are self-driven and overachievers, it is very confusing and uncomfortable for most. I have seen this style most often happen with two types of so called leaders, the visionaries or the “I can’t be bothered with people.” Each of these lead from a distance for very different reasons. Visionaries naturally think in the big picture. They focus on the destination; however, they usually have no desire to determine how to get there. Because they operate at the macro level, they can’t possibly direct at a micro level, thus their hands-off approach. Visionaries are often regaled as our greatest leaders because their visions inspire us. And yet, when it comes to leading people individually, they sometimes like the know how or the patience. The other type of hands off leader is the “I can’t be bothered with people.” We probably have all had a boss like this. The person who got promoted to a leadership role as recognition of their individual contribution and has no desire to interact with nor support his or her team. I can remember feeling this way when I was promoted to my first senior management position. My boss told me that the only way he could give me a raise was to make me responsible for a larger team and a broader set of responsibilities. Well, there was no way I was going to turn that offer down, so of course I accepted it. But….. deep down I really did not want to be responsible for so many people. So I fooled myself and those around me into thinking I was this great leader because my approach was hands-off. I was simply there to work on strategy and it was up to the team to work on the details. That style was perfect for the one percent of my team who were very driven, but it left ninety-nine percent of my team confused, unsure and almost paralyzed because I gave them no direction or support. Hands-off leadership is like stranding your team members in the ocean with no life raft or supplies. They will eventually die a very slow painful death when it comes to productivity and engagement at work. Once again, not a very effective nor empowering leadership style for effective people leaders.
Now that I have de-bunked micro and macro managers, you may be thinking what’s left? My experience taught me that the most effective leadership style is somewhere in the middle, meso-management. As far as I can tell, I created this term and think of it as the hands-on approach. It is right smack dab between the controlling and the hands-off, figure it out yourself style. Like most things in life, leadership is not effective at either extreme. I believe leaders must be well rounded, which means just like Goldilocks’s porridge could not be too hot nor too cold, it has to be just right! With over 25 years of experience leading various groups of people I discovered the hands on approach to be the “just right” mix of directing and empowering individuals. Adopting this approach provides you and your team members a more productive, fun, and energizing work environment. Being a hands-on leader means that you must establish and communicate the direction, the framework, expectations and parameters that will enable your team to be successful. Establish the vision of what a successful outcome means for your team by identifying what you want the end picture to be and refrain from telling them exactly how to get there. Highlight any resource requirements in time, money, tools or people and ensure they understand exactly the framework within which they can operate without watching their every move along the way. And most importantly, as your team is working remain open and available for them to bring you any issues or concerns. Have periodic, not frequent, check-ins to ensure they are heading in the right direction and be their biggest advocate and cheerleader along the way. Adopt the middle ground as a hands-on leader and watch your team and you be more energized and productive.
There you have it, the meso-managed, Hands-on approach Wins! Try it for a while and see how it works!
Still want to learn more about these leadership styles? Read these blogs