How to Cure Micromanagement: 3 Tech Leaders Share Their Strategies for Healthier Habits

Remote work has given rise to a new-age form of micromanagement. Open communication and affording employees space to problem-solve are the antidote — just ask these managers from oak9, Buildout and Origami Risk.
January 18, 2023Updated: January 19, 2023

Micromanagement is more than an annoyance: It’s an affliction that can torpedo employee morale, job performance and retention.

In “The Micromanagement Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Cure,” researcher and professor Dr. Richard White frames micromanagement as an organizational illness. 

“Micromanagement has been practiced and recognized well before we labeled it as an organizational pathology,” wrote Dr. White. In addition, Peter Drucker advocated for “democracy of management” in the 1940s and Douglas McGregor warned about the overbearing “Theory X” manager in the 1960s — well before the term “micromanager” finally made its debut in The Economist in 1975. 

So while micromanagement isn’t new, remote work has complicated its cure.  

“Remote work has certainly reignited the four-letter word in business: micromanagement,” Buildout Chief Growth Officer Helen Calvin told Built In Chicago. “But the concept conflates two elements — frequency of interaction and purpose of interaction.”

Calvin recommends maintaining a regular check-in cadence with the intent of normalizing open communication in a remote setting, not policing productivity from afar. 

“You can leave the worry of frequency behind if the purpose of every interaction isn’t always to evaluate their work,” she said. “You’ll get more visibility if you keep the frequency, but vary the purpose.” 

It’s a tactic that Origami Risk Director of Learning and Enablement Pam Moyer employs with her reports. Her goal is to envision management dynamics as they were in the physical workplace.  

“If I walked by your desk in the office, I would stop and say, ‘Hi,’ so I do the same in Slack,” Moyer said. “If your communication is authentic, then employees receive it as such and are not threatened by the boss Slacking them.”

At Oak9, Director of People Experience Kim Freier follows a simpler mantra: “Great supervisors leave the door open for their team.” 

As Freier, Moyer and Calvin make clear, the remedy for micromanagement in the remote workplace is establishing an open line of communication and an authentic connection between managers and their direct reports. Built In sat down with the three managers to learn more about how they leave the door open for healthy leadership dynamics on their respective teams. 

 

Pam Moyer
Director of Learning and Enablement

 

Origami Risk is a provider of integrated SaaS solutions for risk management, insurance, safety and compliance. Its single-platform, cloud-based software is designed to be easily configurable to meet the needs of insured corporate and public entities, brokers and risk consultants, insurers, risk pools and more. For Director of Learning and Enablement Pam Moyer, great management comes from a place of shared growth. “I tend to lead from a place of curiosity — I don’t know everything and recognize that as humans we are continuously learning and evolving,” Moyer told Built In Chicago. “Every day, I learn something new from my colleagues, my leaders and my direct reports.”  

 

As many companies are making more room for remote work, how do you supervise direct reports without them feeling like you’re checking in on them all of the time?

The key to engaged remote employees is trust. I see myself as a servant leader who is here to help them remove obstacles — so I actively engage daily. First and foremost, I lead by example as a remote employee myself. 

We have a daily 30-minute meeting where the entire team gathers to talk about work in process and any barriers they face. I leverage Zoom, Slack and email to communicate regularly — even just with funny quotes, a random meme or to say, “Hello.” I humanize myself and celebrate my own mistakes with the team so others can learn as well. I replicate the physical office space in a virtual environment as much as possible.

 

Great managers often identify opportunities to step aside and let their direct reports lead. Can you share a time when you were able to do this and how it turned out for both you and the employee?

We had an urgent need to design and develop a week-long training workshop. I began the effort by conducting a needs analysis with our stakeholders. I certainly had ideas for how this workshop would be created and could delegate to my team, but I was also confident that one of my senior instructional designers would as well. I decided to hand the problem statement over to her and let her run with it. I made myself available to her but empowered her to make decisions and execute her plan. I basically said, “I am here to support you, whatever that means — but for now I am just going to get out of your way.” 

She oversaw creating the design, working directly with the subject matter experts, directing content developers, communicating and managing the entire project plan. I trusted her and believed that she would get it done and she knew our entire team was there to support her. The workshop came in on time and met the expectations for performance outcomes. Now she fully owns the program that she envisioned and led the effort to build. She has already identified areas for improvement, too.

 

What advice would you give a new manager who’s not sure when to step in? Are there particular situations or cues you look for to help you determine the right move to make?

Partner with your employees rather than being the boss.”

 

Clear, open, honest, and transparent communication is the key to building trust with your direct reports. You want to inspire and motivate them but also let them make mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities — celebrate them, talk about them and acknowledge them so others learn as well. 

It is only by stepping out of one’s comfort zone can growth and development happen. As leaders, we must balance that experience with meeting business results and goals — but I believe if you partner with your employees rather than being the boss, you won’t have to worry.

 

 

 

An image of the oak9 team at a pier.
oak9

 

Kim Freier
Director of People Experience

 

Driven by its passion for removing friction between development and security processes, Oak9 is a SaaS company with a cloud-native security automation platform designed to analyze infrastructure-as-code and help build applications that are secure and compliant. Director of People Experience Kim Freier is an advocate for empowering direct reports with trust. “Recently, I had an employee who shared that she wanted more experience collecting, analyzing and reporting employee data,” she said, adding that she tapped the employee to take the lead on administering the next employee survey. The results speak for themselves. “Her survey was well-researched, the response rate was incredibly high and she was challenged by the work,” Freier said. “When you take a little extra time to understand your teams’ wants, you’ll often find that engagement peaks and outcomes are high-caliber.” 

 

As many companies are making more room for remote work, how do you supervise direct reports without them feeling like you’re checking in on them all of the time?

Supervising effectively — remotely or otherwise — starts with having clear role definition and project goals. When oak9 posts a role for hire, we talk through the projects and goals we need this person to achieve in the first 30, 60 and 90 days. Beyond that, it’s important to have transparent communication about what your department needs to achieve and what “done” looks like for specific projects.   

Removing the fear of getting stuck or making a mistake will make it much more likely for folks to come to you sooner.”

 

Establish deadlines and trust your team to commit to them. Removing the fear of getting stuck or making a mistake will make it much more likely for folks to come to you sooner with questions. To do this well, you’ll need a cadence of regular check-ins. These check-ins can serve as coaching and skill-building sessions without becoming invasive or overbearing.
 

Great managers often identify opportunities to step aside and let their direct reports lead. Can you share a time when you were able to do this and how it turned out for both you and the employee?

I always do the “resume exercise” with my direct reports. In this activity, I have folks jot down three to six bullet points ideating what they’d like to highlight on their resume to get their next role — often, that next role is with our company. This helps me better understand how they would like to grow and what they’re interested in learning. After completing this exercise, I compare their wants with our team goals, and we carve out ways for them to build new skills.  

 

 

What advice would you give a new manager who’s not sure when to step in?

My best advice is to hold regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports. Regular check-ins with your direct reports will help you get ahead of many potential issues, understand their skills, and — if done well — help build rapport so the employee will come to you when they are stuck.  

For me, the biggest clue that someone is getting stuck on a project is that they come to our one-on-one with no status change or progress made towards the project’s completion. This tells me I should dig deeper and ask better questions. Is the goal of the project unclear? Are other competing priorities getting in the way of this one? Has it just been a tough week personally or professionally and they haven’t had the brain power to tackle this yet? All of this helps me as a manager better understand where I should step in. It’s important to learn how you may need to step in before you start trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

 

 

Helen Calvin
Chief Growth Officer

 

Buildout provides CRE marketing automation, integrated back-office workflow and customer relationship management solutions. Developed in close collaboration with its customers, Buildout allows brokerages to bring their expertise to every stage of their deals. Chief Growth Officer Helen Calvin is an advocate for sharing opportunities for visibility with her team. “I am regularly requested for speaking engagements or consultative calls: panels, podcasts, conferences, advisory requests, networking,” Calvin said. “I have made a habit of spreading them out amongst my team — it gives growing leaders a chance to flex their presentation skills and it massively expands the reach and diversity of our company brand.” 

 

As many companies are making more room for remote work, how do you supervise direct reports without them feeling like you’re checking in on them all of the time?

Micromanagement occurs when you frequently interact with your direct report, only with an evaluative purpose or to give corrective direction.

I am in constant contact with my team — rampantly, in fact. We Slack, email, text, Zoom, and send carrier pigeons. But those interactions run the gamut from collaborative brainstorming to information dissemination, check-in updates to kudos and recognition, gnarly problem-solving to tough conversations.

 

Great managers often identify opportunities to step aside and let their direct reports lead. Can you share a time when you were able to do this and how it turned out for both you and the employee?

Creating opportunities for employees is something I call growth delegation. The growth element is threefold: The employee gets exposure to new skills and experiences, you instantaneously improve the capacity of output and time to delivery for your team, and I get freed up to try new things, too. 

Delegation is one of the elements of the Eisenhower matrix, a management tool I live by. For newer managers, it can be one of the hardest to master, but I’d submit one of the most impactful for your and your company’s growth.

 

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity framework that is often illustrated by a two-by-two matrix — “importance” is placed on the x-axis and “urgency” on the y-axis. Forbes describes it as a powerful guide for delegation. “In requiring you to prioritize tasks by urgency and importance, it helps you figure out what you can delegate,” wrote Forbes’ Mark Nevins. 


 

What advice would you give a new manager who’s not sure when to step in? 

Good management comes back to the fundamentals: Establish clear and measurable goals, have a timely two-way feedback loop and leave your assumptions at the door.

If you have that, the cues are evident. The right move is to engage in direct feedback — which feels normal and natural because it’s already a part of your regular interactions. You’ll discover the root of the issue because you haven’t biased yourself with assumptions. 

Remote work doesn’t change what good management looks like. It just made the delta between good and bad management more obvious.”

 

Remote work doesn’t change any of that, but it does make it harder. You have to overcommunicate the goals because they aren’t permeating the office din. You have to be proactive about feedback frameworks, and you have to be extra self-aware when you’re making assumptions. Did their Slack really mean what you think it meant?

For my part, remote work doesn’t change what good management looks like. It just made the delta between good and bad management more obvious.

 

 

 

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