Is Micro-Managing Necessary For Certain Kinds of People?

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“Some people require micro-management to manage.” True or false?

Sometimes in your management career, you will find people who are so new, so incompetent, or so slow that you feel like you just have to micro-manage them in order to Prevent Bad Things From Happening.

Or perhaps there are some tasks that are so complicated and so important that you simply must jump in to micro-manage, just to ensure that everything is completed to perfection. “You don’t understand, Cedric!” I hear you say — “If we get this feature wrong, I’ll lose my job!”

(By ‘micro-manage’ I mean meddling in tasks you’ve ostensibly delegated to your subordinate).

Are these instincts right? Should you jump in and micro-manage whenever you come up against these unique situations? Maybe! There are certain situations that demand greater managerial oversight, and where it makes sense for you to pull your sleeves up and jump in.

But it’s almost certainly wrong to think that ‘certain people deserve micro-management’. This labels people in such a way that taints your perception of them, which in turn reduces your effectiveness when it comes to managing that subordinate. Instead, I’ve found it to be way more productive to think ‘certain people need training’ — which by implication is a temporary thing.

It’s Not Them, It’s You

One of the most useful guidelines I’ve found in management is the maxim to “assume that it’s you, not them.” Like all simplified maxims, this is only true up to a point, but it’s still useful to keep in mind as a first pass when dealing with complex people-related problems.

Whenever you come up against a subordinate who appears to ‘require micro-management’, ask yourself: is this subordinate really that bad, or are they this way because they’ve not been provided with adequate training?

This last bit is key! Asking this question makes things much simpler for you as manager, because it provides you with a clear path forward. The answer to a subordinate who requires micro-management is always the same: train that subordinate to reduce the amount of micro-management you have to do, and if you fail at that, let them go.

“Woahhhh”, I hear you say. “That’s a little drastic, isn’t it!”

Well, no, not really. I’ve mentioned in the Starter Manager Guide that you should avoid micro-management as much as possible, and that training is the manager’s job — because good training enables good delegation. This is the case because your job as manager is to increase the output of your team — and spending all your time micro-managing someone is possibly the worst way to do so!

Instead, you should spend your time levelling them up. Get them to become more capable! Increase the set of delegatable tasks that you may give to them.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve taught a subordinate as best you can, but still find that your subordinate remains helpless and in need of micro-management, you should consider two things: first, it might be you that’s the problem — perhaps you’re bad at training! But, second, your subordinate might simply not be good enough to stay on your team, and should therefore be removed.

“Removed!” I hear you say. Yes, removed. Most startups or small businesses have limited funds for salaries. If you can’t train a subordinate to improve at the tasks that you delegate to them, then you are sacrificing a spot on your team to someone who you cannot improve. You are effectively reducing the output of your team by keeping them on!

Differentiating between the two is tricky. How do you know if you’re good enough at training? And how do you know it’s not you, but your subordinate that’s the problem?

The Training Effectiveness Rule

I propose a simple rule here: how good you are at training is how quickly you can stop getting directly involved. I’ll call this the training effectiveness rule.

Managers who are good at training will find that over a period of a few months, the amount of time they spend closely monitoring and ‘meddling’ with their subordinates’s tasks will go down. If you find that over a quarter, the amount of meddling stays the same for each team member, then I put it to you that you are the problem, not your subordinate.

Whichever it is, this rule will force you to get better at training. You want your team to eventually consist of subordinates to whom you may entrust a wide variety of tasks, with minimal fuss. (For more information on how to delegate and train well, read chapters two and three of the Starter Manager Guide.)

This can have broader implications for your management practice — far larger than just micro-management.

I once worked with a startup founder who said “I can only work well with a small group of people — that is, people who can teach themselves.” I thought this was really sad. Here was a remarkably capable person who was limiting himself by refusing to get better at training. To this day, he remains plagued with recruiting and retention problems; he continues to accept only “people who can learn on their own.”

Don’t fall into this trap. Get better at training — it’s necessary for delegation, and it increases the set of people you may work with effectively. Use the training effectiveness rule to gauge your progress.  And ask yourself regularly: “Am I getting better at improving my people? What new training techniques may I try next month? How would I know if I’ve succeeded?”

Getting better at training is absolutely doable. The training effectiveness rule shows the way.