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How to Stop Micromanaging

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The book, Killing the Killers, is an interesting account of the global war on terror and, more specifically, how the U.S. and its allies hunt down top terrorist leaders. The book is a peek into military technology, the mindset of terrorist leaders and modern warfare.

One part of the book that I found fascinating, but was likely overlooked by many readers, taught a very valuable organizational leadership lesson. The lesson was related to body cameras worn by special ops soldiers in highly critical raids, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden.

According to the book, American special forces used to wear helmet cameras that transmitted live video to their superiors and other military authorities who were watching from around the world. This real-time observation led to second-guessing during the mission by military bosses, which unfortunately made accomplishing the goal much harder for the special forces operatives. Consequently, the military has switched away from the real-time cameras and now uses body cams to record video that can be analyzed later, after the mission is complete.

What the military learned is that the odds of a mission’s success are higher if they plan well, including setting clear objectives, and then leave it up to the soldier’s training and instincts to get through the battle. There are some impactful organizational lessons we can learn from their experience.

We know that micromanaging is not an effective leadership style from organizational studies, employee surveys, anecdotal evidence, empirical evidence and just plain common sense. Unfortunately, leaders who are inclined to micromanage have difficulty figuring out how to let go. Often, in their minds, it becomes all or nothing; either they are involved in everything, or they back off everything. This inevitably fails, so they decide that they must go back to micromanaging. Both approaches, micromanaging everything or backing off everything, are bound for failure.

When we look closely at the military’s aforementioned process, there is a clear construct that teaches us the right balance between micromanagement and lack of management. It can be broken down into three parts.

First, leaders need to be very involved in setting objectives and planning. These items are not delegated.

Second, leaders should let the people executing the plan use their training and instincts to carry out the plan. During the execution phase, leaders need to step back and have confidence in their team.

Third, leaders should be deeply involved in analyzing outcomes to determine if the mission was correctly executed and achieved the desired objectives.

In other words, leaders should set clear objectives as part of a good plan and later analyze the outcomes, but leave the execution to the people doing the work. This is the magic formula.

Micromanagers trying to give their team more autonomy often fail and get frustrated because they give up control over all three of the above areas, which is a mistake that leads them back to micromanaging. That becomes an even bigger mistake. All leaders need to be involved in goal setting, planning and the postmortem. During the execution, micromanagers need to back off and let the team do its job. Leaders who tend to micromanage can significantly improve their leadership effectiveness if they create clarity in their own minds about these three functions and their involvement in each.

Below are some things that will help any leader execute the above successfully.

A leader needs to ensure they create a lot of clarity around goals. As CEO of our company, I consider creating clarity one of my primary objectives. If a leader creates clarity around the objectives and the plan, micromanaging is rarely needed.

A leader must ensure they have the best people on the job. When you have a problem, the essential part of resolving it is usually not “how” but “who.”

Even when leaders have good people, they must keep investing in them. Developing your team will help ensure they have the right skills and instincts to do the job well.

A leader must provide their team energy and keep them motivated. If a team has clarity of objectives and energy, it can usually accomplish anything.

Finally, a leader must be involved in both evaluating their team and keeping members accountable. It is not micromanaging to assess whether goals have been met; it is good leadership.

An important part of any leader’s job is to optimize results by energizing his or her teams. Most teams find it energizing when we give them autonomy and avoid micromanaging.

To avoid micromanaging, be involved with setting clear goals, planning and evaluating progress. Give the teams autonomy to execute. By following the military’s example and letting your team do its job, you and the team will be happier and achieve better results.

Bill Yeargin is President/CEO of Correct Craft and author of the best-selling book Education of a CEO.

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