Let’s face it: “Hey, can you give me a status update?” is just another set of words for saying “I don’t trust you enough to do your work, so let me look over your shoulder to ensure everything is like I expected”.
Put this way it might sound exaggerated, but take a second to think about all those times you looked into someone’s work before that person chose to show it to you (or make it visible for everyone). All those times you were afraid.
I don’t have to emphasize that fear is not a good standpoint from which to make decisions or collaborate with others. Humans are known to act by impulse when they are afraid - after all, that bear is running after you, what else can you do but run?
But if there’s no bear, then why are we afraid?
An easy explanation is that we all have this (not so) little thing inside us called Ego, which at times can prevent us from seeing other people’s perspectives and lead us to believe we can do anyone’s work better than them. So we’re afraid because everyone will always, by default, do a worse job than we would if only we were in their shoes. We’ve got to jump in! We’ve got to get them back on track! Now!
Perhaps more often though, we’re afraid because we feel insecure about how good of a job we’ve done communicating to the team what the point of their work is. And because we’re personally responsible for the content of the team’s work, we want to get the chance to steer them into the “right direction” in case they drift away.
It’s all good, daddy’s here
Here’s some encouraging news: none of us is better than everyone else. Sounds crazy, I know.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I really don’t think most micro-managers are simply selfish people with bloated Egos. Pretty much on the contrary, I’ve observed over and over again that all of us together are creating a culture, and companies thereof, that prize and foster micro-management. From heroic founders “obsessed” with detail (hey, Steve!) to organizational structures that systematically concentrate power into a small set of people, we shouldn’t be surprised that our lives are cramped with micro-managers in one side, and unfulfilled, unempowered colleagues on the other. We’ve designed this system!
The important detail though, is that we’ve designed it a long time ago.
Let’s take some time to think that one through. We’re managing our companies based on ideas created in a time before we even had managed to figure out that, for example, men are not more intelligent than women. So, to a large extent, we’re still managing our lives from paradigms we don’t believe in anymore.
What happens if we don’t stop
If we keep putting people in boxes, doubting about their value and, fundamentally, not letting them use their talents and do their jobs, we’re directly achieving two things:
We’re limiting the team’s potential by that of one person. The team will stay inside the little box of things the manager understands now, and the company will effectively miss on the potential all those people could add. Think about it this way: for the company, the only difference between a single empowered employee and a micro-managed team of 10 is that the second option costs 10x.
We’re actively making the biggest part of our awake time into the burden we’ve come to accept as work. Stop the illusion that work and life are different things - for most practical reasons our work is our life. So don’t ditch on “life things” while on the job. At work, as in life, people need to be respected, have meaningful relationships and, generally, feel good and happy.
So, how can we create better companies?
Assume people are good. Get excited by the variety of ideas and approaches they bring in because they are different, have different skills and different talents.
Shift to mentoring. There's nothing bad about sharing your own talents and the things you know a lot about. When mentoring someone, see your task as that of adding something to the other person, not of replacing something in them. Remember it’s a privilege that someone is opening his or her mind to your ideas.
See leaders as facilitators. Leaders are trusted members of the team who keep it together, facilitate the work and help solve conflicts. They are neither personally responsible for the content of the work the team produces nor do they have any power over the team members.
Move to distributed decision-making. If everyone in the company has good intentions and no one is smarter than the rest, then why should a small set of people always be given the task to "decide"? Deciding is not a job, it's part of everyone's work.
Once this is changed, and decisions are made by whoever has the best context to do so, then reporting itself starts looking a lot like that old DVD player most of us still own - a tool from the past that we don't need anymore.
Thanks for reading.