By Bruce Tulgan
Since 1993, I have studied the experience of thousands of managers at all levels in a wide range of industries, through workplace interviews, focus groups, polls, questionnaires, and intensive seminars. Our research confirms that, all across today's workplace, there is a shocking and profound lack of daily guidance, direction, feedback, and support for employees from those who are their immediate supervisors. This is what I call "undermanagement"--the opposite of micromanagement.
Undermanagement is not a household word like micromanagement, but it should be because most cases mistaken for micromanagement turn out to be undermanagement in disguise:
Case number one . The employee must check with his manager every step of the way in order to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions. Is this really a case of micromanagement? No.
If an employee is unable to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions on his own, that's because the manager has not prepared the employee to do so. Someone has to tell him, "If A happens, do B. If C happens, do D. If E happens, do F." Tell the employee exactly what to do and how to do it.
Case number two . The employee makes decisions and takes actions without ever checking in with her manager and then the employee gets in big trouble. Burned for taking initiative? Yes. Micromanagement? No.
If an employee does not know where her discretion begins and ends, the manager has failed to spell out guidelines and parameters up front; to painstakingly clarify for her what is within her authority and what is not, what she cannot and may not do.
Case number three. The manager remains tangled up with the employee's tasks or the employee gets tangled up with the manager's tasks. Isn't that micromanagement? No. This is failure to delegate. The management work here is spelling out exactly which tasks belong to the employee and which ones belong to the manager.
Case number four. Something goes wrong with the employee's work and the manager comes swirling in to solve the problem, clean up the mess, and get the project back on track. In effect, the manager takes over the project either temporarily or altogether. Micromanagement? No. In fact, the manager is doing no management work in this case whatsoever. Instead, the manager has stepped into the role of the employee and is doing the task firsthand.
Real micromanagement, if it exists at all, is quite rare. So, which is worse, micromanagement or undermanagement?
What goes wrong when you undermanage? Fires get started that never would have happened. Fires get out of control that could have been put out easily. Resources are squandered. People go in the wrong direction for days or weeks on end before anybody notices. Low performers hide out and collect a paycheck. Mediocre performers mistake themselves for high performers. High performers get frustrated and start looking for another job. And managers do lots of tasks that should be delegated to someone else. On top of all that, when you undermanage, you don't find out about these problems until after they cause a crisis.
What goes wrong when you slip into real micromanagement? You irritate your employees. The good news is that if you are managing too closely, you'll probably realize that pretty quickly. At that point, you just need to step back a little.
If there is such a thing as micromanagement, then surely delegation is the antidote. Delegation is clearly articulating goals, specifications, and deadlines. The real trick is figuring out for each employee with each assignment: How big should the goals be? How far out should the deadlines be? How many guidelines are necessary with each goal?
About Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is the author most recently of It's Okay To Be The Boss (HarperCollins, 2007), excerpts from which appear in this article. Bruce is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought after speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management training firm. Bruce is the author of numerous manager's pocket guides and several books including Managing Generation X and Winning the Talent Wars. He has written for dozens of publications including the New York Times, USA Today, the Harvard Business Review, and Human Resources and his work has been the subject of thousands of news stories. Bruce has addressed hundreds of thousands in his keynote speeches and trained tens of thousands of managers in his intensive seminars. Bruce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.