I’ve had a 22 year operational management career, and naturally, I’ve had a lot of…
In Episode 13 of our podcast we talked about the dreaded micromanager boss and how to work towards a better relationship with them. As a part of that discussion, we briefly talked about a few ‘modes’ a manager might fall into based on how close they are to the team’s work.
We call managers who have low, almost non-existent involvement in their team’s work absentee managers. Those with extremely (maybe excruciatingly) close involvement are micromanagers. And in between those are the thought partners, the ones who empower, enable, and encourage their teams to do the best work of their lives.
How can you determine where you fall on this spectrum and how to move in the right direction? We’ll talk about both absentee and micromanagers — how they come to be and how to recognize the signs — and then offer some tips on how to become the thought partner your team deserves and wants.
The Absentee Manager
Flavors of Absentee Management
Absentee managers come in two flavors. First is the manager who is truly absent. You ever had that manager where everyone wonders where he is for half the day? Ever had that manager who routinely skips your 1:1s? That’s a conscious absentee manager.
CONSCIOUS ABSENTEE MANAGER
A woman that I mentor recently grabbed me to talk career – she was thinking about her next step. We of course framed things up around Career Conversations, but also around the concept of “what you are running from” and “what you are running to.” Often, I believe, people make the mistake of moving too quickly because they are running from a crappy situation but lack clarity on what they want next. She was describing several of the things she is “running from,” and one of them was an absentee manager.
She described having gone weeks without a 1:1 with her boss, and generally inclined to see the good in people, she just assumed the guy was extremely busy and that the lack of 1:1 meetings was an accidental by-product of his jam-packed schedule.
She took on the burden of scheduling and rescheduling via his assistant, and she finally managed to get into his office for a 1:1. She sat down, a meaty agenda in hand, and the first thing her boss said to her was, “How did you get on my calendar?”
What the actual f*%^!
She was flabbergasted because with that one simple question, he made it clear he’d been actively avoiding her 1:1s for months. This is shameful in my opinion.
She needed to meet with him, and he was actively avoiding her. I’ve learned in my last year of working with companies at Candor that this kind of absentee manager is all too common.
UNCONSCIOUS ABSENTEE MANAGER
The second flavor of absentee manager is the unconscious absentee manager. These folks are quite different from the conscious ones in that they actually care about their teams and about doing a good job as a leader.
Well-meaning managers accidentally fall into absentee management, too. I certainly have at specific times in my career and with specific employees. The unconscious absentee manager comes from a place of wishing to grant the people on their teams autonomy. So far, so good, but the execution of that autonomy-granting can be highly variable. It’s not enough just to back away from their work. Ever heard someone say, “My philosophy is to hire great people and leave them alone?” That’s the kind of rhetoric / conventional wisdom that can easily land you squarely in the unconscious absentee manager bucket.
It’s worth noting that this “hire great people and then leave them alone” idea doesn’t really happen at the highest levels of any profession. Let’s take an example of professional sports: The National Football League (NFL).
Every spring, the NFL holds the draft, which is a multi-day process in which each team gets approximately 7 turns to choose the best players coming out of college football that year. There are 32 teams, so if you do the math, the NFL in aggregate is drafting approximately 250 fresh players each year. This is a pretty small number, especially when you consider the funnel to get there.
It’s one of the steepest hiring funnels I can think of – each year in the United States approximately 1.25 million kids play youth football, about 1 million play in high school, about 75,000 play in college, and each year about 250 people get drafted into the NFL; this is .02% of the youth football playing population. It has to be one of the most selective employment scenarios in the world.
Thinking about “hire great people and leave them alone,” with a .02% NFL selection rate, we can put a big giant green check mark next to the “hire great people” portion of that idea. What about this “and leave them alone” part, though? There are two really big problems with this.
First, the players need to be developed – the best 250 players should be ready to go, right? Some are, of course, highly productive immediately, but it’s usually a very small number, low double digits in any single draft class. The players need to be developed and they must adapt to the professional game. The experience and expertise of their coaches and teammates enables them to do that. These players spend hours on the practice field, in the weight room, and in the film room learning, studying, training, all under the watchful eyes of their coaches.
Second, the players must fit into a team and scheme. The other major reason, besides player development, that the great people hired into the NFL are not “just left alone,” is because they have to fit into a team.
A football team is 11 people, working in a synchronicity that few organizations can achieve. Football plays are pretty complex and require coordination between many, if not all, members of the team. Everyone on the team needs to learn how to do their piece of the play and needs to trust that the other team members will also be executing their piece of the play.
I hope you get the point. This play would be a human train wreck if this team just “hired the best people and left them alone.” The team you are managing, of course, is almost certainly not an NFL offense, but the idea still holds. A team of people needs to be nurtured and developed and also coordinated and deconflicted, and that’s not likely to occur without some focus and effort from the manager.
Top Signs You Might Be an Absentee Manager
Wondering if you might be coming across as an absentee manager to your team? Check yourself against this list to find out, especially if you’ve worked hard not to be a micromanager!
- You have missed a 1:1 with one of your reports for more than two weeks.
- You recently espoused your brilliant theory about “hiring great people and letting them do their thing.”
- You regularly feel out-of-touch with your employees’ work, projects, achievements, and failures.
- You are often surprised to learn about things – good or bad – happening in your organization or team.
- Your employees are bumping into each other, left hand unsure of what the right hand is doing.
- You gravitate more towards managing up, tackling high visibility projects, or focusing on your own success than investing that time in your team’s success.
Flavors of Micromanagement
As we discussed in Episode 13 of our podcast, the micromanager falls into two broad categories: is too prescriptive about ‘what to do’ and/or too prescriptive about ‘how to do it.’ First, a bit on those who are too prescriptive about ‘what to do.’
‘WHAT TO DO’ MICROMANAGER
Telling people what to do doesn’t work. Of course as a leader of a team, you are responsible for making sure that people are working on things that support the company’s objectives, but it’s just not going to be effective long-term to prescribe exactly what those things should be.
Of course, there could be a need to make a final decision, break a tie, push people toward some discomfort, but saying to a person or group of people, “here are our/your objectives” not only feels awful for those people, but those objectives will not have considered critical perspective from the people closest to the work.
If you find yourself using the phrase, “you need to,” then you might be micromanaging. “You need to do this or do that.”
I once worked for a guy who was extremely prescriptive in the KPIs he wanted my team to pursue. Out of a sense of duty, I brought his input to my team to try to find some merit in the thinking and see if there was something useful we could take. Instead, my team was left wondering if the guy had any idea what we were doing or why we existed. I ended up having to push back very hard on him. For a variety of reasons, including his rather delicate ego, this strained our relationship. So not only did this micromanagement make it more difficult for us to work together, but he also caused me to spend time on work that wasn’t relevant to our business and caused the whole team to feel less motivated towards the right goals.
All of this could have been solved with a more collaborative approach. If he cared enough to prescribe, why not care enough to spend time working directly with me or even my team to think through more relevant objectives?
‘HOW TO DO IT’ MICROMANAGER
The second flavor of micromanagement is telling people ‘how to do it.’ This is about telling people how to go about achieving an objective or key result, prescribing an approach to getting something done. It’s worth clarifying that teaching, however, is a pretty good catchall for the kind of “telling people how to do something” that’s entirely appropriate. If you have some experience to share, of course, share it.
With that in mind – and I don’t know a simpler way to say this – prescribing every approach for people can be demoralizing. If you allow people to develop their own courses of action, their own approaches, and you allow them to make mistakes along the way, they will grow into stronger employees capable of far more over time.
By telling people exactly how to do something, you will simultaneously take away their autonomy and also waste their unique context, unique skill, and their creativity that could be used to solve issues or make progress. They don’t grow. They become automatons executing your commands and incapable of operating without you around.
Top Signs You Might Be a Micromanager
If the situations I described above sound like ones you find yourself in, take a close look at this list. If one or more apply, you may be sliding into micromanagement.
- You think some version of “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”
- You believe your team member(s) will fail if you aren’t heavily involved in their work.
- You regularly shift priorities on your people and actively direct people’s work day-to-day.
- You feel like you don’t fully trust your team to get the job done.
- Your team is very regularly producing all kinds of slides and updates for the primary purpose of quenching your thirst for details and informing your context.
If you find yourself identifying with either the absentee manager or the micromanager, don’t worry! Both of these modes are extremely common — I hear about them all the time when talking with users of the Candor Coach iOS app, listeners of our podcast, and attendees of our workshops. The good news is that knowledge is half the battle! Now that you know where you fall or partially fall, you’ll be more likely to move in the right direction. Plus, I’m of course going to give you some killer tips.
Become a Thought Partner
What does it mean to be a thought partner to the people on your team? Thought partners fall somewhere between micromanagers and absentee managers, but not in a Nebraska sort of way. Thought partners are highly engaged, whereas absentee managers are not engaged. Thought partners enable, empower, encourage, and inspire, whereas micromanagers drive and direct.
- A thought partner thinks of herself as someone who is alongside her employee listening, advising, helping.
- A micromanager thinks of himself as someone who is above his employees, saving the day.
- An absentee manager thinks of herself as someone who is out of the way of her employees, leaving them entirely to their own devices.
I was chatting recently with a friend and colleague, Amarpreet Singh, and he told me a story about his former boss, Francoise Brougher, that for me crystallized what it means to be a thought partner.
First, Amarpreet made it clear that the first thing Francoise did as a manager was “extract the fear.” She made it safe for people to come in vulnerable, confused, and not in possession of all the answers. “That was huge because I never felt like I had to position things, hide, or guard what I said.”
With that as context, Amarpreet described that he would walk into Francoise’s office, maybe in his regular 1:1, and he would say, “I’m not nailing this thing I’m working on, and I need some help.” He would go in with the mindset of improving and learning and not worry about being judged or penalized for not knowing all the answers.
Francoise would metaphorically clear her desk, roll up her sleeves, and say, “OK, let’s dig in.”
He was careful to note that she never wrested control of a decision, never told him what to do. “I will give you my input, but this is your call.” Something she told him quite literally in his first week after he made a decision that went against her advice.
Key Activities of Thought Partners
To become like Francoise, to become a thought partner to your team, think about these goals for yourself:
Extract the Fear
Do you ever say, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions?” Please stop. The first key to engaging your people as a thought partner is to have them think of you as a thought partner. For sure, if you penalize them for trying to engage you that way – by insisting they bring you solutions to problems only – they will never see you as a thought partner, as someone who they can work through problems with. It needs to be ok for people to come to you dazed and confused. You don’t have to provide all the answers, of course, but what have you done to remove fear and enable your people to be vulnerable? If you have no idea how to do that, well, a great place to start is by asking for feedback.
Help people sharpen their ideas
I love the GE “Ideas Are Scary” commercial because it makes two really important points about a new idea. First, a new idea is fragile, like a baby, and second a new idea is often ugly (like most babies? ;). It’s far easier to shoot down and crush new ideas, and frankly, many ideas ultimately deserve it. But we don’t want to great ideas to suffer the same fate – they must be nurtured into something beautiful and impactful, and this is a role a manager can play on the team. Thought partners nurture the new idea. Micromanagers crush it or steal it. Absentee managers find out about the idea weeks later if at all.
Obstacles in the workplace are everywhere, and whether real or perceived, they are real to the people on your team. Also whether real or perceived, you have a role to play to help remove the obstacle. Some obstacles need to be gently pushed aside, like a door that is swinging in your path, and some obstacles need to be blown up like Wile E. Coyote and his ACME gear. As a manager you have to help people through the real and perceived obstacles and help determine whether you need ACME explosives or a gentle nudge in the right direction. A thought partner actively engages to help with obstacle removal. A micromanager tells their employee exactly how to work through or around the obstacle. The absentee manager says implicitly or explicitly “that’s your problem, go figure it out.”
Help syndicate ideas and initiatives
Colonel Boggs, a Marine Colonel I used to work for, used to say to his officers “What do you know and who are you telling?” This was meant to inspire you to realize you have information that likely others need, and you need to constantly remind yourself to share that information. Important and impactful ideas and initiatives will usually require cross-team coordination and buy-in. As a thought partner, you can help your team identify and gain the attention of the people they need to talk to in order to advance impactful ideas. Thought partners work hard to make sure that everyone has the same information they have. A micromanager (whether for selfish reasons or possibly thinking they are providing a service) hoards information, doesn’t share regularly, “pinch hits”, and takes on syndication his/herself. An absentee manager leaves an employee to their own devices to build consensus and syndicate ideas across teams.
As a thought partner, you can help your team identify and gain the attention of the people they need to talk to in order to advance impactful ideas.
With those goals in mind, realize that you have a lot going for you that can help you achieve these for your team. Leverage these assets to become a thought partner:
As a boss, you almost certainly have more context than your employees. They will likely have more details, but you will likely have more, or at least different, context. Abide by Colonel Boggs’ rule here and help inform your employees’ context.
Your experience is valuable in helping people sharpen ideas and in helping them find their way around obstacles and other big time wasters. Share your experiences when relevant, helpful, and welcome. Sometimes, you will not have as much experience as others. That’s ok. Surely you must have some experience to bring to the table, and if not, focus on and emphasize the other assets listed here.
Your clarification skills
Asking people to expose their logic can be enormously helpful to both of you. Often, something feels much clearer in someone’s head than it is in reality. By having someone explain ‘why’ he is thinking a certain way, you can help him sharpen his ideas. It can also help you get comfortable that he is thinking through things in a lot of detail.
Your boss’ context
Your boss will have questions, which, by the way, are often a function of your boss’ unique context! If you know your boss well, sometimes you can anticipate what your boss will ask and help your employee by sharing your boss’ perspective, too. Though be careful not to over-rotate on the boss’ perspective or questions. This is a great way to thrash your team. Just be aware that your people probably wouldn’t readily have your boss’ context.
Understand Your Risk Areas
I think it’s important to be thoughtful and self-aware enough to understand your tendencies — do you naturally trend toward micromanager or absentee manager? Are there certain circumstances in which you might trend towards micromanagement or towards absentee management? For example, in a high stress situation, do you start barking orders and surge toward micromanagement or do you retreat to your safe space and trend toward absentee management?
When you identify tendencies like this, flag them for your team. Just let them know that you have a inclination in that area — this will help set their expectations and give you a chance to invite their feedback.
If you have trouble identifying these proclivities for yourself, I took a crack at articulating in the below 2×2 where I’m more likely to to be a thought partner, more likely to be a micromanager and so on. But it’s worth noting that this is my 2×2, and it may not be yours. The most important thing is to become conscious about your tendencies and be able to recognize when you are in danger of sliding away from thought partner and towards one of the other modes.
The axes describe areas in which you, the manager, have high skill/low skill and high interest/low interest.
This thinking works for me – I know that if I’m not super interested in the content area, I will struggle to invest the right amount of mental energy to be a quality thought partner. I also know that if it’s an area that I have a lot of skill in that I am more likely to be prescriptive with my directs and manifest for them as a micromanager. This doesn’t mean that high skill = micromanagement. It simply means that I’d be more at risk of micromanaging and would want to guard against it. Your results might vary, of course, but I’d encourage you to think a little bit about what will bring out the best and worst in you.
You can also think about this when hiring and putting together your team. Like any normal human being, there are things that I’m good at and things that I’m bad at. It’s not a crazy idea to try to construct a team that gives you the best shot of being a good thought partner. I’ve tried, for example, to hire people that could be pretty autonomous, who could figure out and articulate what they need from me, and who valued being able to run their business with a lot of autonomy. These are qualities that set me up well to be a thought partner. There may be another set of qualities that work best for you.
Let Your Team Tell You How You Are Doing
When talking about feedback specifically, we say all the time that it is not measured at the speaker’s mouth, but at the listener’s ear. This means that no matter how clear you think you are… no matter how Radically Candid you think you are… it doesn’t matter, really, at all. What matters far more is how clear your direct report found you because the purpose of feedback is to help people have more success, and the only way someone can have more success is if they fully understood your feedback.
This thinking applies well beyond feedback. Whether you are achieving ‘thought partner’ status with each of your directs is not really something that you can or should assess on your own. You should ask.
What matters is how much your direct reports think of you as a thought partner.
Why not, for example, share this article, and say, “I want to be a thought partner with you, and I want to avoid absentee manager/micromanager status. How am I doing along those lines?” This is a good “Solicit feedback” moment, and in collaboration with your direct reports, you can get on a path to being a quality thought partner with each of them.