Today’s Dilbert comic strip provides us with a good reminder of the fine line which exists between reasonable oversight of activities and micromanagement. Dilbert has allowed sufficient time to pass before seeking an update on a colleague’s assigned task only to find that it has been neglected due to a lack of following up. When Dilbert attempts to get commitment on a revised completion date, he’s accused of micromanaging the activity.
What is deemed a reasonable amount of oversight by a manager may be perceived as micromanagement by team members.
While some teams might possess sufficient psychological safety to embolden team members to voice their concerns, the culture within other organizations or teams might actively discourage this sort of straight talk. In such environments, the frustration felt by the team members festers resulting in impacts to their productivity and slowly poisoning team morale.
And this can become a vicious cycle as team members become progressively more disinclined to share updates with their leaders which results in even greater degrees of oversight.
So how can we avoid this?
It has to start with the leaders and team members collaboratively developing work management practices. If these practices get imposed by leaders or solely developed by team members they will never satisfy the needs of both parties. Early in the life of a project if the objectives for both sets of stakeholders are put on the table and an honest, frank discussion is held about principles governing how those objectives can be met, a set of practices which both sides buy into can be developed.
It also helps to make the oversight process as seamless as possible. Use of visual work support tools such as physical or online Kanban boards can shift the model from assigning work to team members to team members signing up to complete specific work items while simultaneously providing transparency into what’s done and what’s left to be done.
Finally, reducing cross-initiative multitasking can enable staff to complete tasks quicker and with higher quality while eliminating the need for managers to have to constantly follow up with team members to ensure that priorities haven’t shifted.
Micromanagement is like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of the threshold test for obscenity : “I know it when I see it”. Given this subjectivity, it’s better to avoid getting being accused of it to begin with.