Trust and Micromanagement

The Trust Gap

One of the biggest problems I see in organizations is a complete lack of or limited amount of trust.  It is everywhere in every direction.  This “trust shortage” as I will call it, leads to all sorts of problems that trickle down into areas of productivity, engagement, communication, conflict, customer satisfaction, and financial success.  And it is something we all have control over to improve.

Now I am not advocating that people adopt an ignorant and experientially disregarded sense of trust, but rather to be introspective about where your lack of trust comes from and what your trust shortage may be costing you.  Think of how much time you navigate around an employee to get information you trust, or how you might be overloading a great employee (and burning them out, btw) because you do not trust the one who should be doing it?  And let’s not overlook the large amount of time you spend in meetings just so you know or your boss knows thing are on track.  Lots of time and energy spent so we can feel “comfortable” about where things are.

Micromanagement (aka. Babysitting)

While there are many things a trust shortage can be a factor towards, a huge one that shows up on a list of employee complaints is “micro-management”.  Few leadership books or management books written in the last couple of decades will advocate this style of management.  Quite the contrary, most literature will tell you that micro-management leads to diminishing returns; the more intense your micro-management, the narrower your results.  To employees it is squashing and overly controlling.  To managers, it feels like I am “babysitting” employees.  In the end, they really both want it to stop, they just don’t know how.

At micromanagement’s heart is a lack of trust, pure and simple.  Either, I don’t trust my employee to do the job I expect of her, or (and sometimes this is the real problem) I don’t trust my abilities as a manager to set expectations and coach performance.  If it is the first scenario, then you have one path to follow – determine the cause for the lack of trust and if it cannot be repaired get someone in the role you trust.  If it is the second, here are some options for development and they take maybe 10-15 per day at the most.

Clarify Expectations

Sit down one day and write a list of the qualities you look for in employees.  That is day one.  On day two, pick one of them and write down behaviors that exemplify that characteristic (resist using one characteristic to describe another, i.e. Professional = being respectful.)  This is harder than it may first appear but absolutely crucial to get clear on.  Again, pick one, just one.  Repeat each day for all the others until you have a behaviorally based list of expectations.  What you now have is all the expected behaviors you have been judging your employees on perhaps without their knowledge.   Congratulations, you are now light years ahead of over 75% of managers I know, and you are only a quarter of the way complete.

After you have worked on the list (and it will be a living thing if you do it well) have a brief conversation with your employee (yes, one at a time).  And here is how the conversation should go.  Ask them what they believe someone who is [insert quality here] would be doing to demonstrate that quality.  THEN, fill in the blanks.  What I do not advocate is simply telling them what is on your list.  Chances are, there is a great deal of overlap and asking first will help you feel like less of a 5th grade teacher.  Now that each of you has a common understanding of the expected behaviors, ask them what resources they need to fulfill those expectations.  And provide them.  If they tell you they need training or additional tools, get them.  It is much cheaper and faster than trying to fix it later.

Congratulations you’ve completed step 1 of eliminating micromanagement

Give them feedback

This is an Achilles heel for most managers and an area we can all improve upon, including me.  I’m not talking about the “atta boy” casual feedback; I am talking about providing meaningful feedback that informs behavior.  Saying “you did a good job” is nice but is not very directive; my follow up question for my manager after he says that is “at what?” or “how so?”  If we can anticipate these questions and automatically fill in the blanks, feedback becomes much more impactful.  It takes effort, focus, and intention that we rarely spend.

A block I often see to giving good feedback is fear.  Fear of it escalating to conflict, or fear of hurting someone’s feelings.  Both of these fears may stem from very real experiences where feedback was given poorly, and most often they are the result of poor delivery.  The trick is, delivering a difficult message in a way that someone can hear it.  And here where I say that effective communication is never an accident, there is always a dedicated intent and effort put into the wording.  Some of the best feedback I have ever received was the hardest to hear.

Instinct typically results in self-protection, not the benefit of others.  This is where we get in trouble.  We give feedback out of instinct and it ends up being so washed out to avoid conflict, or hurtful and sometimes discounted by the receiving party.  What some call “brutal honesty” is usually 80% brutal and 20% honest.  “Sandwiching” feedback where we give a positive-negative-positive can lead to mixed results.  And let’s be clear, we sandwich feedback because it is easier for us, not them.

Sit down, take 5 minutes to craft your feedback statement.  Whether the feedback is meant to reinforce behaviors or correct behaviors, spend the same amount of time on each.  And deliver them separately.  Telling someone to go north but south at the same time can just be plain confusing.  If you are going to give both types of feedback avoid using the word “but” at all costs.  And “however” is just a fancy way of saying “but”.  Use the word “and” so they know both statement are equally true.

Oh, and leading off with “this is not personal, it’s business” just means it is not personal to you.  If I am the employee getting feedback, trust me, it is personal.  And I still want the feedback.  When I ask a class full of supervisors, “If you were doing something that was holding you back in your career, would you want to know about it?” the response is unanimously “yes.”  Your employees want both types of feedback, tell them what they are doing well and how they need to improve.  And for goodness sake, don’t wait until the end of the year on their review, especially if there salary increase is tied to their rating.  That is just an ambush to disengagement.


This all started with low levels of trust and a big part of performance is communication.  If I do not trust the information I am getting, get limited information, or get none at all, then the actions I choose will most likely not fully correspond to the desired result.  Wars, in fact, have begun over a miscommunication.  I’m not saying glasnost will break out in your office if there is a communication error but it could be a large part of your performance problems.

If feel you are spending too much of your time over your employees’ shoulders (or they tell you that you are) then start here.  Clarify your own expectations, learn theirs, and give each other feedback once in a while.  If nothing else, you can get a clear picture of who wants to meet your expectations, and who does not.  Then you have a different decision to make.


One thought on “Trust and Micromanagement

  1. Pingback: 10 Things Good Bosses Do « Peak Alignment

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