How to Lose an Employee in Ten Days, Part 2

As leaders, we walk a very thin line between being an “effective manager” and “micromanaging.”

In reality, reflecting on how I’ve managed my team over the last few months got me thinking about this. In my efforts to be effective and focused, I constantly found myself asking my team a series of questions:

How long did that take?

How did that meeting go?

What do you have next?

How much longer do you think will this take you?

Is this style of “leadership” exhausting my team? Are my questions starting to chip away at their patience?

Or, at the worst:

Are my questions and actions creating the opposite effect of what I’m trying to accomplish?

As leaders, we are focused on the mission and the larger picture — it’s a part of our role and many of us love the responsibility that brings. However, that same requirement can so easily turn this skill set into a bulldozer for engagement and ownership among our teams.

However… these questions are necessary to keep priorities in order and projects moving. On high-risk or highly iterative projects, I know that setting clear priorities are especially essential to success. Knowing when things are moving forward and when they are stalled is critical to keeping timelines.

The moment the wrong project or client issue pulls at our most important resources is the moment the team starts to head in the wrong direction. Repeat this mistake and you begin to tread into the dangerous territory of missed deadlines and disengaged employees.

While I am passionate about the engagement and fulfillment of work for every human being, the pull of projects and competing priorities can drive me into hyperfocus mode. This “hyperfocus” is all too close to the worst type of management in the world: micromanagement. I want to make every single one of my clients thrilled they decided to work with us. I want to push the boundaries of the quality and experience everyone has. Yet, in that process, am I losing my team?

As I reflect, I’ve found myself searching for answers to one big question: How do I balance the success of a project with the success of my team’s development?

Here are three ways to keep micromanaging in check while driving projects forward.

1. Help your team set their own priorities

Cliche, I know.

But in the name of progress, I found myself setting the priorities and flying off to the next engagement, meeting or quiet space to conquer more work. The whole time ringing in my ears is:

“Only do, what only you can do.”

And why not, right? This is how a team grows and we as leaders develop.

Yes.

And no.

I’m the leader here, and as much as I love the responsibility, I must also realize I will never sustain massive project success on my shoulders alone. Either I trust the people I work with or I don’t.

So, do I trust my team?

Yes…and no.

My heart says “yes,” but my actions say, “no.” And that right there is at the heart of the micromanaging issue.

Just because our heart, ideas, and intentions are leaning one way, our actions speak a very different language. Not to us, but to our people. We want the information to make the best decisions and we should get it…but is there a better way?

Instead of asking: How long? What’s next?

I can say, “I feel we have a lot in the pipeline right now and I want us to be really sharp with our priorities. You know how long items are taking and what you have to work on next. I really want to provide you ownership of these so let’s touch base at the end of the day and talk about how long XYZ took and what you think is next.”

It’s not a silver bullet. But some variation of these two sentences will start to build trust, provide me with the answers I need and provide perfect coaching opportunities as a leader. This provides both short and long-term gains:

SHORT: No more annoying questions from Josh about how long something is taking or what my team member will be working on next. Even though we may lose out on some potential for the day I am creating an opportunity to develop trust in my team. (If a day is too long, shrink this down to a project or daily task.)

LONG: This gives ownership of the project to the team. It becomes their baby, their passion. The team gets to make the decisions and execute them. It’s invigorating to them and allows me to build on a stronger foundation instead of the alternative where every so often I find myself dumping responsibility to avoid burn out.

This can be anxiety-inducing for a time. But it all comes down to trust.

We are the captain of the ship and can build the crew to be strong so we can then go to conquer new waters.

And always as Ray Dalio, author of “Principles,” says:

Trust, but verify.

We put the work into trust, but even harder is the work required to verify. Poor leaders let this go, great leaders find a way.

2. Stay level…at all times…at all costs

We’ve all experienced leaders who were a bit of a loose cannon. They unload all their stress and thinking on their employees, leaving the team confused and often uninspired.

And I get it; we have to share with the team what’s going on.

Missed deadlines, last-minute changes, new priorities, and so on, are all extremely stressful parts of our jobs as leaders. It can cause overwhelm. But bringing that whirlwind for a touch down on your team? That does no one any good. Period.

Google, in their diligent research of all things company culture, released the findings of a survey given to employees last year. The main thing all employees want? Level-headed managers.

We shouldn’t ask our team to process our frustration for us. It’s our job as leaders to figure out what to do to solve these issues and how to strategically align our talent to the problems at hand. We need to set up our teams for success and we do so by keeping our cool when things get hot.

When we keep our cool, even if we are building a reputation as a micromanager, we’re not known as the one who jumps at every fire and complaint from the team. When someone has an emergency we handle it with poise and steady the ship at all costs.

3. Share the insights of the Chef…

While I was in college, I started serving at a boutique Italian chain restaurant and developed a love for all things food (and wine). What I loved most about my job was talking about the food. Getting to describe the dish in a way that excited yet delivered the true nature of the elements being prepared was pure bliss.

Over the years, even as I started my professional career, I never stopped serving. Eventually, I felt like my food descriptions hit a ceiling. And then I found the breakthrough with this one little twist.

Here is a before and after of how I used to approach the tables:

Before: I have a couple of specials to tell you about tonight.

After: The chef has a couple of specials he wants me to tell you about tonight.

Before: The fresh-cut halibut is put right onto the grill.

After: The chef takes the fresh cut filet and places it right on the grill.

It’s subtle, but I noticed probably by accident when I started to bring the chef into play, people lit up. They were excited to hear about his little tips and tricks. I would authentically share the chef’s preferences for a dish and even “bring them” into the kitchen with the descriptions. They came for the food, but I was able to bring them into the experience of the chef preparing their meals. I had the knowledge they didn’t and I was able to share it in a way that heightened their experience. It brought them in and connected them to the purpose of what they came to do (eat).

As leaders and managers, we have a little bit of insight into what the “chef” is doing. As we talked about above, it’s good not to dump everything on your people, but it also helps when we can curate excitement and the importance of the timelines and pipelines.

People thrive when they have a purpose.

Humans thrive when they have meaning.

When we share a little bit of the big picture/behind the scenes with our people, it provides context for their roles. It ties the work they are doing to the direction we are going. Just like these little chef inspired insights, how can we give our team little nuances of how what they are doing matters and connects in?

You’ve heard me talk about this before, but as a young accountant, I peppered a partner in the back of an NYC cab late one night trying to identify the meaning and impact of my work. I was desperate to know.

When we as employees no idea of the outcome, reason, or significance of our work, not only does it suck. But we enter dangerous engagement territories and our employee brain starves as it feeds on purpose and meaning.

Giving our teams a little bit of the behind the scenes knowledge can have huge implications in their work output. This context is powerful to understand why we do what we do. This context helps a human being understand when the manager comes and asks…

How long did that take?

How did that meeting go?

What do you have next?

How much longer do you think will this take you?

Until next time,

Josh