Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Hands-off management, micromanagement and in-between – some thoughts on what they mean in practice 1

One of the most difficult issues that managers face – essentially all managers and regardless of their industry or their titles or scope of responsibility, can be found in simply knowing when to actively supervise and manage, and when to step back. Most managers spend essentially their entire careers and work lives, working in the context of their own specific areas of hands-on experience and training, whether that means working in technical and related areas such as Information Technology or Finance, or in soft people-skills areas such as Marketing and Communications or Personnel. They, as such, have training and experience that would at least offer a foundation for addressing challenges and opportunities in the functional areas that they are responsible for, and even when facing what to them personally are the new and unexpected. The challenges and the at least potential opportunities that I write of here are, however, essentially pure management in nature. And they are of a type that is not generally addressed all that effectively in standard MBA and related programs with their all but laser-focused subject area orientations and specializations. These issues do not, after all, clearly fit into any particular arena of business-defined functional area expertise or responsibility.

• When should a manager step back and even knowingly allow at least more minor mistakes, delays and related learning curve inefficiencies?
• And when should they step in and more directly intervene, and even if that means they’re in-effect taking over from a hands-on employee or a lower level manager who reports to them? When does this become micromanagement?
• When does hands-off mean giving others a chance to make mistakes and learn and grow professionally from them, and when does it mean leaving them hanging and without the support that they actually need, and that they might even actively want?
• When does more actively hands-on mean actively helping and when does it more primarily become an otherwise avoidable challenge to those so “helped,” and of a form that undercuts those subordinates and limits their ability to do better on their own the next time?

I have in effect already at least partly addressed those questions from how I phrased them, when I raised the possibility of at least more minor mistakes, delays and related learning curve inefficiencies, and by implication the possibility of more impactfully significant challenges that would require more immediate and effective response and resolution too.

• If a new, more junior manager is slower than might be desired at first, when using a new-to-them administrative tool and its online screens, and when they are still figuring out where everything is in it on their own, it can be better to wait for them to ask questions if they hit a wall in that, instead of automatically, in effect taking over. They might take a little longer at first, in effectively completing the tasks that they would use this tool for. But you’re making the investment as a more senior manager, of letting them learn this new tool as a matter of ingrained hands-on experience, and at their own pace can really pay off for you and for your business later on, and certainly if this means they’re learning their next new software tool that much faster, and if they learn it more effectively and fully from how they learned how to use it by actually using it, too.
• If, on the other hand, that new more junior manager is on the brink of making a mistake that would create serious problems for a major business client, that would probably call for a more immediate and direct intervention.

But that, at least categorical level context in which a step-in or step-back decision would be made, only represents one of several possible arenas where the questions that I raise here, as to how to better manage, actually arise. What are the work performance issues involved that a step-in or step-back decision would be made about? But just as importantly, who are the people involved in this and what are the most productive ways for working with them, and certainly when everything is not moving ahead like clockwork for them?

• And it is important to note in this context, that addressing the who side of that, can and generally does call for more individualized management approaches and more flexible ones at that, than a focus on business tasks and goals would call for, and certainly as a general rule.
• Business tasks and goals, and certainly as organized and called for from a big picture perspective, are laid out in business plans in place, or at least in effectively drafted ones. They are formally understood for what they would accomplish and how, at least for an organized and efficient business and for its ongoing business systems.
• But few if any businesses have anything like formal guidelines in place for working more effectively with others, depending on their personalities and on what specific ways of completing tasks work best for them. Few if any businesses have anything like formal guidelines in place for working more effectively with others in addressing how they would work when facing special-to-them needs: short term and time-limited or ongoing, and with only a few special exception circumstances such as parental need guidelines, and disabilities accommodations standing out as exceptions there.

Actually addressing the issues raised here as a senior manager, means thinking through the tasks and goals involved and the priorities that they carry, while also thinking and acting with a matching awareness of the other people involved in carrying them out – as well as maintaining an active awareness of other involved parties, including third party stakeholders who need to have the tasks involved, completed correctly and on time. And at least as importantly, this also means better understanding ourselves as the senior managers in charge in this too.

• Management is about organizing and coordinating what has to be done, to get it done and as smoothly and effectively, and cost-effectively as possible. But it is also about working with and enabling the people involved in carrying this work out. Managers are people, who work with, and in this context supervise other people.

Personality and management style, as shaped by it, enter this narrative here, and a need to be able and willing to work with others in ways that they can be positively receptive to, and in ways that can help bring out their best. This means finding the right balance between challenge to perform, and the opportunity for professional growth that the right types and amounts of such challenge can foster, while giving others both the opportunity and the tools needed to get their work done, even as they learn from trying and doing.

I have seen way too many managers who do not allow for any error or delay (from others). And that lack of flexibility and yes – lack of adaptability, makes it all the easier to fall into one or the other of the two chasms of problematical management that I have been discussing here: hands-off that can and will leave subordinates twisting in the wind, or its overly involved counterpart of longer-term performance-thwarting micromanagement. And this brings me to the final point that I would raise here in this brief note: the final point of challenge that not finding the right balance between hands-off and hands-on can bring.

• Whether a senior manager steps back and remains uninvolved as their default and automatic response to work performance problems in their team (taking a sink or swim approach),
• Or whether they make the mistake of stepping in too often and on problems and issues that do not genuinely call for their direct intervention, leaving no room for errors or delays and even when a subordinate is learning, or when they are trying to navigate the unexpected or unusual,
• They make the path that they themselves would follow as a more senior manager in charge, that much more difficult too. The more they just automatically default to either of these two approaches and certainly if they vacillate between them, the poorer their own work performance is likely to be from their failure to focus on and expend effort, and time and other resources where their effort is really needed, and where it would have been expected in their own performance reviews.

And the types of problems that I write of here can radiate down the lines of a table of organization from more senior managers on down. At its worst, poor managerial decision making of the type that I write of here, can come to shape and damage entire corporate cultures, and businesses as a whole, undermining morale at a business as a whole in the process.

I offer this posting with a goal of explicitly raising and outlining a type of management problem. And I will return to this topic area in future postings, with a goal of offering some thoughts on how to better address it.

In anticipation of my next posting on this, I note here that I have made a number of assumptions in this one that are true for many involved participants and across a range of real-world scenarios, but without their being universally true, or even close to that. As an example of that, I have assumed that all of the people involved in the scenarios that I have touched upon here, are good employees who can do their jobs effectively or even exceptionally well, even if they do face at least occasional learning curve slow-downs in that. And I have assumed that such learning would be more autodidactic in nature. But not all employees are as effective as others and not all show the same levels of potential for developing into the good or even great there. And some need and really benefit from more formal training and particularly on more complex training issues.

The devil, it is said, is in the details and that definitely applies for the issues and at least potential problems that I write of here. And the detail-of-necessity nature of the issues that I raise here, explains at least in part why this is not necessarily a topic area that is addressed as effectively as might be needed in at least most MBA and related degree programs. The details that arise here are all experience based, if they are to be fully learned and understood. My goal here is to offer tools that might help to shorten this type of learning curve. And I will continue this effort in a next installment to what will become a short series.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Page 4 to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, with this put into its addendum section (and also see its Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3.) And you can also find this at Social Networking and Business 2 (and also see its Page 1), and at HR and Personnel – 2 (and see its Page 1.)

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