Current: How Not To Micromanage Remote Workers

WORKING REMOTE|2,009 views|Apr 30, 2020,11:10am EDT

Ann Latham Contributor Careers

cropped view of cute bulldog sitting near girl using laptop

I remember being given a task as a new intern years ago. The request was so vague and confusing that the first thing I did was to dig into the project and try to figure out what my manager was asking of me. A week later I went back to him with a list of concrete objectives. He agreed. I smiled and said I was finished. This is what you call lucky delegation. I had just completed the task that he expected would keep me busy for the whole summer. That’s not the norm. More common results include:

  • The employee takes lots of time with little or no progress to show for it while you chew your nails in anguish.
  • The employee hits the ground running, but crashes or runs in the wrong direction, much to your misery and embarrassment.
  • You can’t afford either of these scenarios and so you favor a tight leash and watch every move.

And now, with employees working from home, it’s really tough to micromanage them! What’s a manager to do?

First off, these are all terrible options. I could have spent my entire summer internship on that one task and no one would have been concerned. Since my boss expected it, he wouldn’t even have been chewing his nails in anguish. It could have been a great loss.

I once ran in the wrong direction as well. I “cleaned up” some terrible spaghetti code in electron beam modeling software back before I knew about regression testing. Ouch!Today In: Careers

I’ve also been accused of micromanaging. One of my employees repeatedly proposed faulty product designs that he clearly had not thought through. He was being lazy, wanted my blessings, and when he didn’t get them, accused me of that dreadful management sin: micromanaging.

In my experience, managers really struggle with handing off responsibilities. And that was back when they could stroll past employees desks multiple times a day. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. As a matter of fact, delegation can be pretty easy. Even remotely. Here are the secrets to success.

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Delegate the What, Not the How

First off, you need to delegate the what, not the how. If you actually want someone to take responsibility and use their brains, they need to understand what they are trying to accomplish and why. What will success look like? What will be different when they are done? How will they know when they are finished? Being sure they understand this is absolutely the first and most critical step.

About the How

Now let’s talk about the how. If there is a tried and true method your employee needs to follow, obviously you need to be sure they know that. My guess is if you are worried about delegation and micromanaging, that’s not the case, so enough said about that.

If your employee is experienced, knowledgeable, capable, and has a track record for making things happen and checking in with you as needed, conveying the what may be all that you need to do. Again, I don’t think those employees are the reason you are reading this article, so let’s move on to the second secret to success.

Attend to the Process, Not the Person

To delegate successfully and avoid micromanaging, and all the miserable consequences associated with it, focus on the process, not the person. If you make this about the person – are they succeeding, is their work good enough, are they smart enough, experienced enough, working hard enough, can you trust them – you’ve got all the ingredients for a totally uncomfortable, defensive, snarling mess. If, instead, you make this about the process, you can work together in problem solving mode to pool and confirm best ideas.

When your attention is on the process, your questions can be harmless and mutually beneficial:

“What are the next steps?”

“Shall we touch base once you’ve gotten to that point?”

“Where do you think I can be of most value to you?”

“Help me understand how you are thinking about approaching this problem?”

“I’d like to weigh in on that part when you get there.” 

When you attend to the process and the outcomes of each step, the benefits are tremendous. It’s not about them and the quality of their work:

  • It’s about the process, the current step, and next steps so you and your employee can stay in synch regarding expectations.
  • It’s about ensuring a roadmap exists so all necessary intermediate outcomes are on the radar screen. 
  • It’s about breaking big problems into distinct, manageable chunks so you can think about each clearly and minimize “wandering in and around” trying to figure out what to do next.
  • It’s about checking in on specific steps (as appropriate for the individual) to put your heads together, maybe to brainstorm. Are we missing anything? What are we taking for granted? Do the next steps still make sense?
  • It’s about confirming and agreeing that a step is complete so you both can mark this discernible progress, feel good about the process, and develop mutual trust.
  • It’s about recognizing that different steps of any process benefit from different expertise and insights. When you think stepwise, it becomes obvious that you are positioned to take a stronger role on some steps while your employee is better positioned for others. For example, you may play a heavier hand in setting objectives and constraints and your employee may be better positioned to identify options that best satisfy those objectives. You might be the best choice to make the final decision regarding the best option, though your employee may be a better choice, especially when technical details are involved. Your insights might also be critical in identifying risks and deciding what level of risk the company can live with. Your employee might be the best choice for establishing plans to mitigate those risks. Too often, we fail to break tasks into distinct steps and assume one person is the best choice for every step.
  • And it’s about the only way you can really provide value when you aren’t the subject matter expert. When managing people outside your area of expertise, you can still provide value by attending to the process. That’s the reason I’ve successfully provided great value for clients in over 40 industries. I am the expert on creating clarity and process clarity is a big part of that.

Become a partner to your employees by attending to process and the discomfort and anxiety associated with managing them will be greatly eased, even when they are remote.