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Micromanagement muzzles motivation and poisons productivity, says Matthew Jenkin. There are better ways of engaging employees, and it starts with trust…
Before Apple co-founder Steve Jobs led a tech revolution, he was a notorious micromanager. His inability to delegate famously contributed to the commercial failure(1) of NeXT – a computer company he launched after leaving Apple in 1985. But he learnt his lesson and a new hands-off approach resulted in success for his next venture, Pixar. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he was a much more capable executive(2).
Now, thanks to smart technology – which Jobs played a crucial role in pioneering – employees have more freedom to choose when, where and how they work, without a boss breathing down their neck. Without realising it, Jobs had helped hammer another nail in the coffin of micromanagement.
Why, though, does micromanagement sound the death knell for business and why do more autonomous ways of working boost productivity?
The problem with micromanagement is that it is counterproductive by its very nature, explains productivity expert Marianne Page. Micromanagers are control freaks who feel a need to put checks in place for absolutely everything and monitor every single aspect of every single job. Instead of giving constructive feedback if a task hasn’t been done well, they will criticise and even redo the work themselves.
“The effect on the team is to completely disengage from the work and ultimately to leave the company,” says the bestselling author of Simple, Logical, Repeatable.
“I have seen this so many times,” Page continues. “In a client business firm that I work with now, one of the managers is absolutely a micromanager. He is completely frustrated with the team which, from his point of view, won’t take ownership. But what has actually happened is that they have done a piece of work and, rather than giving them feedback, he has just gone, ‘Oh that’s rubbish, I’m going to have to redo all of that myself.’
“And he does that time and time again. To the point where the team wonder why they should bother trying to get it right first time because he’s just going to rip it apart and do it himself anyway. So they have disengaged and it’s a vicious cycle of mistrust. The team know he doesn’t trust them and they think, ‘What’s the point? I won’t do my best work because even my best work isn’t going to be good enough’.”
This type of disengagement is costly. According to the book 12: The Elements of Great Managing(3), absenteeism caused by disengagement costs a typical 10,000-person company $600,000 a year in salary for days where no work was performed.
In contrast, engaged employees(4) are more likely to show up to work, to stay with a firm longer, and to be more productive while they’re on the job. Gallup(5) research cited in the book finds that highly engaged teams average 18 per cent greater productivity and 12 per cent greater profitability than the least engaged teams.
Psychologically, it is damaging too. A study from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business(6) looked at how stress and levels of control affected 2,363 employees. When comparing highly demanding jobs, those that also gave employees less control were associated with a 15.4 per cent increased chance of death.
The autonomy antidote
So, if micromanagement is poisoning productivity, what’s the antidote? Giving employees more freedom and autonomy in how they do their jobs is key.
One study of 400,000 people in 63 countries, published by the American Psychological Association, found that autonomy and control over one’s life matters more to happiness than money(7). In a work context, this requires a sense of control over your work, but – just as important – over your time, too.
“People are often happiest when they feel that they are an entrepreneur within the organisation,” claims John Lees, a careers expert and author of How to Get a Job You Love. “They need to feel like they have a big enough canvas to paint on inside an organisation and freedom of action to do it.”
Flexibility plays a key role, and employees with flexible work schedules report better wellbeing(8) than those with less control over time and place. Indeed, research of 1,000 employees by communications specialists Maintel(9) showed that flexible work policies were perceived as an important workplace benefit, with 64 per cent of remote workers claiming they don’t feel micromanaged and 58 per cent saying they would take the opportunity to spend even less time in an office, if it were available.
One of the biggest benefits of offering more autonomy to employees is in recruiting and retaining young talent. Gregory Blondeau, founder of tech business Proxyclick, insists you will never attract Millennial workers if you police them and says there is no place for micromanagement in a successful company.
His Brussels-based business therefore doesn’t place hours or location restrictions on its staff. He claims it makes no difference to him if they are working remotely or seated at a desk opposite. He has even allowed some of his staff to work remotely in other countries, including Portugal and Canada. “Give employees the flexibility to shape their working life and it’ll pay you back in dividends,” he says.
Of course, giving employees more autonomy and flexibility requires trust. And Blondeau says technology plays a crucial role in that. Staff therefore use online collaboration tools such as Slack and a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system for managing sales and partnerships.
He explains: “I know how many calls and meetings have been done by each individual and everybody knows that. So it is transparent. There are ways to keep track of what people are doing in an open, transparent way for all – which helps.”
With flexible and remote work continuing to grow in popularity, the micromanager’s days appear to be numbered. Marianne Page believes that with proper training and development even the worst offender can be reformed.
“As soon as we can teach managers that by involving people, involving the team and engaging them in continuously improving the business, the better it is going to be for everybody,” she says. “People using their brains is not something to be feared, it just makes everything more fun, productive and enjoyable. It’s important that everybody gets to fulfil their potential.”
Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers