Most of us at some time have experienced the downsides of over-controlling management. Micromanagement discourages subordinate initiative, damages organizational morale, and inexorably leads to less than optimal subordinate performance. Managers who try to exercise control over everything their subordinates do, end up creating a stifling work environment and failing at a manager’s most important responsibility: getting the very best out of those entrusted to their management skill.
But many of us have also experienced the downsides of a management style that exercises precious little control at all. Subordinates confused about direction, the boss’s performance expectations and intentions, or their precise work objectives and goals, generally find it difficult to feel confident and comfortable on the job. The overly laid back manager, who for whatever reason, seems to believe that subordinate self-direction is superior to actually managing, ends up creating a chaotic work environment and failing in the same way as his micromanaging colleague above.
So the key question for every manager is how much control and to what ends is appropriate?
I believe it helps to begin with an understanding of the basic human desire for a “comfort zone”; an environment consisting of enough predictable, familiar, and comprehensible elements that allow us to function comfortably. When we move into a new home, for example, it does not really feel like home until we have unpacked our stuff and arranged it in familiar ways. Re-assign us and require us to occupy a new work space, what is the first thing we do? Unpack our personal items and array them around us of course.
Therefore, I believe the appropriate and necessary focus for a manager’s exercise of control is the creation of a working environment that consists of sufficient predictable, familiar, and comprehensible elements that her or his subordinates clearly understand management’s expectations; that is, the WHAT they are to do and within what PARAMETERS. Provided with this sort of overarching structure — like the foundation and framework of a house or building — talented subordinates can exercise their individual initiative and creativity within that environment to accomplish their goals. The most creative subordinates will naturally wish to alter and improve upon the overarching structure but they must have some place from which to begin. Creating that initial place is your management job; it is where to exercise your management control.
The challenge, of course, is deciding just how much control to exercise here. Over-architect the working environment, and you run the risk of creating restrictions that frustrate initiative and creativity. Subordinates are quick to discern the difference between what needs doing and being required to do it someone else’s way. But under-structure the working environment, and subordinates often find themselves having to guess precise goals and objectives, thereby leaving outcomes over-exposed to chance.
I and many others have often described management as a “performing art”. And by its very nature, art is both a creative process and one filled with trial and error challenges. Most artists tell us that they rarely get it right the first time. One of my favorite classical composers, for example, was famous for initially over-composing his symphonies and then spending years refining and rewriting the scores.
Best to think of the process of creating a work environment with just about the right amount of structure to allow subordinates to perform at their optimal potential, as a constant work in progress. It is a process that I like to describe as DO-ASSESS-ADJUST-THEN TINKER SOME MORE. If you ever feel fully satisfied, then you are probably headed for trouble.
The only way I know to judge whether you have it about right at any given point in time, is to observe how your subordinates are doing. Their performance, morale, feedback, and the business results they are generating will tell you when it’s time to adjust some more.