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Steve Jobs Made This Notable Mistake as a Manager (but You Can Avoid It)

It’s usually the biggest mistake new managers make.

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BY Quora - 11 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

How can I tell if I'm micromanaging my employees? Is that a bad thing? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Osman Ahmed Osman, Engineering Manager at Quora:

I believe micromanaging is a bad thing. It's probably the biggest mistake I've seen new managers make.

The media might glorify the idea of the obsessive micro-manager. Elon Musk calls himself a "nano-manager". Steve Jobs was known to obsess over tiny details and terrorize his teams if they got things "wrong". It's a good story to tell, but it makes people admire that type of behavior, which is dangerous. It's a classic mistake - people start to think those leaders succeeded because of that trait, rather than despite of it.

For me, the simplest sign is: are you able to attract and retain people who are more talented and driven than yourself? If you can, great job, Elon! Either you're not micromanaging, or you've managed to do it in a way that doesn't harm your team's objectives (at least in the short term - more on that later). Maybe you're so good that people will put up with your micromanagement because they get to learn from you.

If you can't, you need to rethink your style. There can be many other reasons why your team or your company might not be able to attract and retain talent, but for generally successful teams and managers, this is the biggest. It should trigger alarm bells. Talented, driven individuals hate being micromanaged. They are intrinsically motivated, and averse to anything that undermines their sense of ownership. When exposed to micromanagement, they either leave, or they lose their sense of ownership and passion. This cycle reinforces itself - you will keep hiring (or converting) people who fit this mold, which will drive inferior results. This will require more a more hands-on approach from you, which will further undermine their sense of ownership. You will feel like "if I want something done, I have to do it myself". You will ask people to do things, then step in and take over when they take too long (or don't deliver what you wanted). It's like a drug - it provides an immediate fix, but long-term your "body" (ie your team) wastes away.

Of course, it might take some time to detect whether you are retaining people. How can you tell how things are going without having to wait that long? First, there are general "risk factors". I think any new manager who is generally driven and passionate about their work is likely to micromanage. I'd go as far as to say that if he/she keeps doing what they are used to doing from their pre-management days to be/feel productive, that default behavior would result in micromanagement. It takes awareness and effort to avoid that.

Second, I think for early detection, a great way is to try and have open feedback channels. For instance, a manager can ask their reports for feedback directly. I'll say something like "I'd love to try and find the right balance between supporting your work and breathing down your neck, and the easiest way for me to do that is if you let me know when I'm off-balance". And I genuinely mean that, because I still find it really difficult to get that balance right. It differs from person to person and situation to situation, and really do appreciate that feedback when I get it.

Now, reports will rarely say something as direct as "you're a micromanager", but they might say things like "remember when you asked me to give you feedback? Well, I got this! I think I can handle it myself, and I'll let you know if I need your help". I'll also encourage / remind them to give that feedback to my manager - it sometimes is easier for people to do (and I've been lucky to mostly work under managers who I can trust to give me that feedback and help me work through it).

Finally, keep an eye on your delegation. If you're just not delegating, or if you're un-delegating or pseudo-delegating, that's probably a bad sign. "Un-delegating" means you "delegate" but then end up taking the task back and doing it yourself, a la "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself". Pseudo-delegating is you give someone a task, but you still "own" it yourself (for example, by checking in on status often, or being too prescriptive about how it should be done).

So are there situations when micromanagement makes sense? Absolutely. Management is a complex task, and requires different approaches depending on the internal and external challenges a team is facing. A team might be in "crisis mode", and might require close attention. Again, to use the drug analogy, it's fine to take this medicine as a temporary solution until things get better, as long as you're aware of it. In fact, your goal should be to quickly get your team healthy again, but you (and your team) should be aware that this is a temporary solution.

This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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