How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Delegation

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in three separate conversations around micromanagement.  All have been in the business and nonprofit context, but the idea of closely observing or controlling the work of subordinates or employees can just as easily apply in the non-work environment.  Think, for instance, of the “helicopter parent” syndrome.

The Harvard Business Review has an article by Rebecca Knight on micromanaging that suggests, “It is a hard habit to break. You may downplay your propensities by labeling yourself a ‘control freak’ or by claiming that you just like to keep close tabs on your team, but those are poor excuses for excessive meddling.”  I’ll admit to having some of the micromanager bug myself, and I’m convinced that one is never completely cured.  But as with the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous 12-step process, public recognition of the problem of micromanagement can be effective in beginning to consider different ways of working with colleagues, family members, children, and friends.  A number of years ago I went through an executive coaching process where I asked several peers to provide unvarnished feedback on my management style. They spoke to my strengths, but it also became clear that I held too tightly to my work.  That feedback set me on the path of—to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove—learning how to stop worrying and love delegation.

What are the signs you might be a micromanager?

  • You worry that it will reflect badly on you if your team doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it.
  • You have trouble prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t matter for you to do your job
  • You step into a project by thinking, “I can do this faster simply by doing it myself.”
  • You worry about what is happening in your office/department/division and ask your staff to cc you on all their emails.
  • You ask your employees to seek your permission before doing basic tasks.
  • You want to see a daily schedule to ensure that your staff is doing the job the way you want it done.
  • You step into a project at the first sign of (what you perceived to be) trouble.
  • You don’t trust others to do the job as good as you would do it yourself.
  • You find yourself working at 5 o’clock in the morning, or 11 o’clock at night, or all weekend.
  • You schedule your children’s days and weekends so heavily that they don’t have time to just be kids.

Any of that sound familiar?  Well, once you’ve recognized the illness, Knight suggest some cures.

“Fighting your micromanaging impulses might be hard at first so pull back slowly. You need to get comfortable, too. Do a test run on a project that is a bit less urgent and give your team full accountability and see how it goes . . . Recognize that your way is not the only, or even necessarily, the best way. The acid test of leadership is how well the team does when you’re gone.” (Side note:  I’m reminded of how my team tackled my absence during a sabbatical—and made me laugh at myself in the process—with their What Would DJB Do? (WWDJBD?) mugs.)

. . . if things don’t go exactly as you’d like, try your hardest not to overact. Take a breath; go for a walk; do whatever you need to do to come ‘back from that agitated micro-managerial moment’ . . .  After all, does it really matter if the memo isn’t formatted exactly to your liking? For most things, nothing is so bad it can’t be corrected.”

WWDJBD?

The “What Would DJB Do?” mug my staff prepared for sabbatical. You can consider this my personalized “World’s Best Dad” or “World’s Best Boss” mug

So what’s wrong with micromanaging?  After all, if the job is done well, isn’t that the point.  Not exactly.  Knight suggests, “Micromanaging dents your team’s morale by establishing a tone of mistrust—and it limits your team’s capacity to grow. It also hampers your ability to focus on what’s really important . . .If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts” (emphasis added).  You can set the broad vision and goals for your project and then hold your team accountable for reaching those goals without deciding in excruciating detail how they have to travel to that destination. For anyone with any type of oversight responsibility—be it a division chief, a project manager, or a parent—understanding and then focusing on your job while letting others grow into and focus on their job is the only way toward long-term success.

Finally, I think Paul Graham has one of the best reason to stop micromanaging:  life is too short.  Life is too short to do stuff that doesn’t matter. And doing someone else’s job because you are micromanaging is doing stuff that doesn’t matter.

“One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin. . . . The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call ‘important.’ Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.”

Just about everything in that bulleted list above will fall, over time, into the category of stuff that doesn’t matter.  So take a deep breath, step back, and learn to stop worrying and love delegation.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

I Could Be Wrong, But…

Last month the Harvard Business Review had a fascinating article about how we can become more open-minded.*  In this time of major disruption we need more leaders and citizens who are willing to consider other viewpoints and be intellectually flexible.  The article’s author, Shane Snow, noted that Benjamin Franklin had a way of both preparing himself and his listener to being open-minded.  Whenever Franklin was about to make an argument, he would open with something along the lines of, “I could be wrong, but…” Snow notes that “saying this put people at ease and helped them to take disagreements less personally. But it also helped (Franklin) to psychologically prime himself to be open to new ideas.”

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, I find the need to push myself to consider other options, to consider that “I could be wrong, but…” as I make statements of (what seem to me to be) fact.

Shane Snow

Shane Snow CEO and founder of Contently photographed for Shane Snow by Christopher Lane

Snow notes that in 2016, researchers—building off the concept of “intellectual humility” from religion—outlined four ways to assess open-mindedness:

  1. Having respect for other viewpoints
  2. Not being intellectually overconfident
  3. Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect
  4. Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint

Other researchers added a fifth trait, “’openness to experience,’ or a willingness to try new things or take in new information,” as also being important to building open-mindedness in your life.  When the author gave as an example “willingness to try new food” I thought, uh-oh.  (I’m the guy who finds what he likes for lunch at a restaurant and then orders the same thing on return visits.)  However, when I took the Intellectual Humility Assessment, I found that my openness to new experience scores were fine; however, my lowest score came in “separating your ego from your intellect.”  Well, that will certainly leave a mark…

Being open-minded does, of course, come with important boundaries.  There are times where open-mindedness can lead you astray. But in general, if you have to think about the last time you admitted you were wrong, perhaps you could use a bit more intellectual humility and openness to new experiences to exercise that open-minded muscle.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*A similar article by the same author, Shane Snow, can be found here.

What we do should be informed by what we know. Asking “what” will help.

Self-awareness is so important in facing life’s ups and downs.  Despite experience shaping our model of the world (as I’ve written before), bias still prevents us from making experience-based decisions, especially if we lack self-awareness.  A colleague recently sent me a note along with a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Dr. Tasha Eurich which explored this theme.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness

Eurich’s article spoke of two broad categories of self-awareness:

“The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.

The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.”

Self-awareness can help in confronting our biases. Common obstructionist biases in situations that should be informed by experience are the tendency to use confirmatory evidence, assumptions about causality, and disregarding negative information. My colleague’s question to me was, “Do we throw our hands up now?”

Not yet (she answered her own question). There are different ways to gain self-awareness outlined in the HBR article.  Dr. Eurich found that “people who improved their external self-awareness did so by seeking out feedback from loving critics — that is, people who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth. To ensure they don’t overreact or overcorrect based on one person’s opinion, they also gut-check difficult or surprising feedback with others.”  Introspection, on the other hand, was a surprisingly poor way to gain self-awareness for many people because we often approach it in the wrong way.  We begin our introspection with the question “why.”  Eurich makes the point that “why” invites negativity and rationalization. Instead, she encourages the use of “what” questions in forward-focused introspection, because identifying patterns in situations and decision-making allows us to see what actions contributed toward our success or failure. Asking “what” questions will help people make experience-based decisions.

What we do should be informed by what we know. It’s hard. But asking “what” will help.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB