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August 11, 2014

Is Micro-Managing Always Bad?

In a previous article I argued that it is disabling to hold people accountable for results. The reason for this is that, in principle, one only has power over what one gives or contributes. Therefore to hold somebody accountable for results is to focus their attention on that which they have no power over. One literally disables someone.

However, exactly what people actually contribute is not always that easy to identify, and this problem becomes more and more pronounced the further up the hierarchy one goes. I have found that senior people in organisations have a very interesting excuse for their own lack of knowledge of what their subordinates are actually up to. They call such an interest micro-managing. They feel that it is not their job to involve themselves in the job of their subordinates, their job is to ensure that the subordinates achieve the required results. This would mean that the managers job is to hold subordinates accountable for results.

 Empowering subordinates

We have argued before that a useful metaphor for what distinguishes a manager from a leader is to examine the relationship between the coach and the athlete in a team sport like rugby. The first element that should be questioned is the issue of intent. The manager’s view is that he uses people in order to achieve a result, which is what he is held accountable for. The fundamental transactional implication of this is that the subordinates experience that the boss is there to get something from them, and their natural reaction is to engage in a haggle.

In a team sport, however, it is clear that both the playing of the game and the achievement of a result is the concern of the player, and the coach’s job is to enable the player. This does not suggest that the coach has no interest in either the score or the game, but these are his means to do his job, which is to coach the player. By shifting the focus of the relationship with the player from achieving a result through him to using the result to enable him the player experiences that the coach is giving him something. The transaction is basically experienced to be benevolent.

To put this differently, a manager uses the people as his means in order to produce a result and is therefore taking from them. A leader uses the results and the task as the means whereby he enables his people and is therefore in the relationship to give them something.

However, it would be quite difficult for the coach to do his job if he didn’t watch the game. He certainly would not be able to do his job if the only information he had access to was the result. So far from it being micro management, the time which a leader spends in getting himself aquainted with what his subordinate is actually doing is a necessary precondition for him to do his job.

The issue of accountability

Using our fishing metaphor, we argued that empowerment implies three key variables. It is concerned with giving the person the means, to fish (the rod, line hook etc), the ability to fish (the skill and knowledge to do so) and the accountability to fish. So if one wanted to identify specifically what a leader should give to his subordinate then this amounts to giving that person the means, ability and accountability to do their job.

The practical implication of this is the following: Assume we are dealing with an operator of an extrusion machine at a plastics manufacturing concern. Clearly, the operator should be accountable for running his machine according to specification. The problem becomes apparent when one seeks to discover what his supervisor should be held accoutable for. In most factories the supervisor’s key accountability is to produce the results required of his section.

However, the results occur precisely because the operator runs his machine according specification. So the supervisor does not “do the results” He does other things. What we are arguing for is that what he should do is to provide the operator with the means, ability and accountability to run the machine. So that when the machine does not run according to specification and therefore the results are bad, the fix that the supervisor should implement is not to get the results up.

He should establish why the operator is not running his machine according to specification. Is this a means problem or an ability problem. If these two variables are not at issue then the supervisor should hold the operator accountable.

Because the supervisor’s manager is only interested in the result he has no way of knowing whether the supervisor is dealing appropriately with the poor performance of the operator. So the question is, what should the manager be contributing in this case? It should be to provide the supervisor with the means, ability and accountability to make the contribution, which he should make.

So let us assume that the poor performance of the operator is neither an ability or a means problem. The supervisor should therefore be holding the operator accountable for his performance. However, does the supervisor have the means to do this? Has he got the authority to discipline? Are there clear standards for discipline in the organisation? Is the supervisor able to discipline people? Does he know how the disciplinary process actually works?

Should the supervisor have both the means and the ability to discipline then he should be held accountable for not disciplining his subordinate, not for the fact that the results were bad. In fact the focus on the result creates the condition where both the supervisor and the manager crowd around the machine to get the results out while the operator stands in the corner smoking a cigarette!

And like the supervisor should be held accountable for providing his subordinate with the means, ability and accountability to do his job, so the manager should be held accountable for doing the same things with his subordinate. This logically creates the conditions where every person in the line is held appropriate accountable for what they can contribute. This way of looking at accountability therefore establishes the conditions where line groups are in the position to focus on issues which are appropriate at their level in the hierarchy. Not to follow this logic creates the condition where line bosses function several levels below where they should be, which is the key problem in most enterprises today.

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