The ‘curse’ of micro-management – too simplistic a view?

Professor Stephen J. Perkins offers some insights on micro-management and striking the right balance

December 2017
Professor Stephen J. Perkins

The ‘curse’ of micro-management – too simplistic a view?

Professor Stephen J. Perkins offers some insights on micro-management and striking the right balance

December 2017
Professor Stephen J. Perkins


Professor Stephen J. Perkins DPhil (Oxon), Chartered Manager, Chartered FCIPD, FCMI, FHEA, formerly Dean of the Guildhall Faculty of Business and Law, works with organisational strategy leaders to ensure the remuneration of executive teams is soundly governed and effectively communicated. He is editor-in-chief of the Routledge Companion to Reward Management and leads the CIPD annual reward survey team.


Micro-management - are you getting the right balance?

Micro management is generally perceived as something negative. But should we see that to be always the case?

Getting embroiled in too much detail risks obscuring strategic focus. But sometimes a manager – coaching and supporting a subordinate colleague – may need to be more ‘hands-on’ (taking care not to stretch that analogy sensitive to issues around interpersonal interaction). However, be mindful of the likely consequences.

We can learn from what practical management commentators Hersey and Blanchard call adopting a ‘strategic contingencies’ approach to people management. Setting the balance between giving direction and trusting a subordinate to get on with the job. But remaining all the time conscious of the contextual conditions – place, task, orientation of the individual being managed, and that person’s state of preparedness to complete activities delegated to the employee.

While not ruling out some ‘high task – low trust’ management, the point being addressed is one of getting every manager to stop and think. To consider what the classical economist Adam Smith advised leaders to do – to show empathy. To reflect on receipt of the input by a boss from the worker’s standpoint, and gauging managerial action based on how the superior would feel if it was they who were the target of their own attention.

In other words, to pause and ask some questions before taking action, so as to be as sure as reasonably practicable that their intervention does more good than harm. In the immediate boss-subordinate interaction and to the relationship generally as it carries on into the future.

Are you a micro-manager? Do you stop before handing out instructions – asking people to get things done – to work out what will work optimally for that individual? And for the individual as part of a workgroup? Each member of which will have specific characteristics that can work for or against the manager. And, of course, in doing so to reflect on where that manager stands in relation to those governing his or her own performance – expectations for outcomes, and over what time frames…


Lessons from military history

My corporate governance colleague, Brian Dive, who has commented extensively on what he calls ‘healthy’ organisations and the behaviour of their managerial occupants draws out lessons from military history covering the period following the late nineteenth century war between France and Prussia. Following a humiliating defeat, Field Marshall Helmuth Von Moltke decided that to achieve success in future campaigns it was important to factor-in the practical knowledge gap between generals and front-line officers.

A lieutenant might be tasked with capturing and securing a targeted piece of territory. The question for Von Moltke was what instructions should be included in the battle orders? He concluded that, on the one hand, clarity over what is to be achieved is essential, to avoid any doubt about the application of scarce strategic resources – troops and munitions. On the other hand, if the officer leading the mission is to feel fully engaged with the general’s overall intentions for the campaign of which a particular sortie plays a part then it is important to explain the why. Why the target is important. Bearing in mind that in a land campaign this means risking soldiers’ lives including their field officers.

The general needs to be open to genuine consultation – and to make space for it, before the fog of battle sets in when the pressure is on to act – so that those going into combat feel they have had every reasonable opportunity to test the premises for action; to feel a part of the decision-making process. Even if they don’t make the strategic decisions. And so that the front-line officer can, in turn, engage those who will serve under the officer in the field.

For Von Moltke, the general’s obligation extends further: to ensure no combatant is sent into action without being effectively trained and warranted as capable of fulfilling the tasks to be performed, as well as properly resourced – even in cases where a campaign may be resource-constrained. It’s the job of the general to sort that out in a spirit of loyalty to those under command.

What’s not for the general – or any strategic manager, such as a business leader – to do is to tell their subordinates in microscopic detail how the mission is to be executed. That’s where, Von Moltke’s insight informs us, on-the-ground knowledge is crucial. And anyone who has listened, as I have, to psychologist and business coach Nigel MacLennan talking about enabling creativity in organisational settings will know that tightly specifying ‘creativity rules’ will get just the opposite. Similarly, where people get fired for failing in situations requiring innovative (creative) thinking and doing. All that micro-manager’s intervention does is tell everyone else that the costs of taking radical steps outside the proverbial box are too high. Thereby institutionalising mediocrity.


Lessons for today

What are some key lessons around micro-management, then?

  • Know your people – when do they need more intensive ‘coaching’, and when can they be left with a free-hand to innovate within outcome oriented parameters? Will they readily accept that in-depth managerial support, knowing it’s developmental without feeling a dead hand constraining their freedom of manoeuvre in the field?
  • Empathise: how would you react to the managerial approach your first instinct is to apply?
  • Challenge: have you created space before the pressure is on – however dynamic the competitive setting – for you and your team, individually and collectively to grasp the what and why? And to shake these about a bit to test underlying assumptions to ensure the battle-lines and rules of engagement are correctly drawn?
  • Lateral thinking: might there be a better way that you could miss, not being regularly in the field? Will your team members help you arrive at more fit-for-purpose tactics if you share with them the full campaign intentions and strategic resource focus?
  • And will you give them the space – and share the credit for positive results – to work out how best to achieve the targets you, and those governing your own actions, are setting?

Consultative management is not micro-management. And it’s certainly not weak management.

Professor Stephen J. Perkins

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