Staying Involved Without Micromanaging

A reader asks:

“I’m a new manager and know that I shouldn’t micromanage, but I’m not sure how to perform my role without being totally uninvolved. How do I make sure that work gets done well without actually micromanaging?”


Well, first it’s important to be clear that being a hands-on manager is not the same thing as being a micromanager.

A micromanager dictates exactly how to do something and watches over every little step in the process, refusing to truly delegate any decisions. That’s bad because it means that you squander one of your biggest levers for getting more done (your staff!), and it’s demoralizing to staff who won’t grow and won’t be excited to work with you.

But good managers do get heavily involved in ensuring that employees are clear on the desired outcomes, they do check in on progress so that employees can make needed adjustments before it’s too late, and they do debrief with staff to foster learning and accountability.

There are also times when a good manager should manage more closely than that, such as when an employee isn’t moving work forward, results are disappointing, or the stakes are very high. Of course, if your close involvement is needed for a long stretch, it might be a sign that you don’t have the right person in the job and you would need to address that — but the answer meanwhile isn’t to stay hands-off if the work isn’t being done correctly.

Think of it this way: As a manager, your job is to make sure that you’re getting the results you need, in the short-run and over time. Part of getting great results in the long-term is hiring great people, helping them learn, and giving them room to do their jobs well. But you should also be involved in determining what those results should be and setting them up for success (by doing things like ensuring that they’re on the same page as you about outcomes and that they have the resources and guidance they need). And if you’re not getting the type of results you want, then you should indeed step in and get more involved.

Let’s look at some specific examples:

Micromanagers… Good managers…
Dictate how to do a task, when it won’t affect the quality of the results Clearly communicate expectations for outcomes
Redo work themselves Give feedback and, when work isn’t quite right, ask that it be redone differently
Constantly check up on work that a staff member has shown in the past they do well Set major milestones and benchmarks and check in on those as they near
Ask to see all emails before they go out or to be in every project meeting Ask to see “slices” of work (a sample of the whole, such as a segment of a document or a page from a new website design)
Never allow a staff member to take full ownership of a piece of work, only assigning it out task-by-task Shift the weight of a responsibility to a staff member and expect them to obsess over details and drive the work forward
Manage experienced, skilled staff members in the same way they would manage more junior, less experienced ones Adjust their approach to fit the context – managing less experienced or less skilled employees more closely
Manage low-importance projects as closely as they would manage high-importance ones Adjust their approach to fit the context – managing high-importance projects more closely

So what does this mean for how you actually manage? These four steps will help you get the balance right in day-to-day management:

1. Clearly convey to your team what success looks like. Setting goals that clearly describe what success will look like for each person on your team will allow you to hand off real weight and responsibilities, and will be what you’ll measure progress against and how you’ll know how people are performing.

2. Guide more, and do less. Rather than spending your time doing the work yourself or monitoring every detail of how the work is being done, instead invest your time in clearly communicating expectations at the outset and in making sure that you and your staff members are on the same page about how work will unfold, and then in checking in on progress, serving as a resource, and creating accountability and learning afterwards.

3. Check in regularly. Having a regular time to touch base one-on-one with each of your staff members about their work will keep you focused on their results and will create a place for you to check on how projects are coming, give feedback, and agree on prioritization – and will set you both up well to let them go forth and pursue their goals with an appropriate amount of autonomy the rest of the time.

4. Take on concerns forthrightly. When work isn’t progressing as you’d like or a staff member isn’t approaching their job in the way you’d expect, talk about it – whether that means giving simple feedback, working to develop a staff member’s skills, or tackling a serious performance issue or a staff member’s fundamental fit for the role.