Micromanagement in the workplace can leave employees feeling disengaged or like puppets.

Why Micromanagement in the Workplace Stifles Innovation — and How to Stop It!

Part 3 in our Mindsets of Workplace Transformation series. Below, we cover how workplace micromanagement can severely diminish employee capacity, and what you can do about it.

Picture a company where all workers do exactly as their managers ask with no feedback or resistance. Sound like nirvana? If so, you might be in need of this mindset shift: moving from control to creativity.

Many leaders fall into the trap of micromanaging employees, believing that controlling the process is essential to getting good results. Assuming you’re hiring good people to begin with (and that you have effective employee onboarding systems in place to get them up to speed in their roles), micromanagement in the workplace is not only unnecessary — it’s counterproductive.

Quality employees are unlikely to respond well to being told exactly how to do their job once the initial orientation period is over. When they aren’t empowered to get results in ways that work for them, they are less likely to feel accountable for those results and unlikely to be engaged in their work. (Just in case you haven’t been paying attention to the last decade of research supporting employee engagement as the secret sauce driving innovation and profits in leading companies, check out this link on why engagement matters and what managers must do to engage their team.)

Engagement isn’t the only victim of a micro-managing boss. By micromanaging, leaders are severely underutilizing the skills and intelligence their employees bring to the table. When you try to control every movement made by every employee, employees don’t have space to critique and improve on their own processes — a learning process that is an essential part of developing the kind of deep expertise that can only come with time.

As you can imagine, such an environment is not fertile ground for innovation. With every minute accounted for and every problem solved, employees have no opportunity to innovate. While it may not seem productive in the traditional sense, allowing employees the freedom to experiment, rest, collaborate and even socialize is essential for “out of the box” thinking. If employees feel pressured to keep their nose to the grindstone, they are too busy working harder to step back and contemplate how they can work smarter. As a manager, you provide clarity on the goals, timelines, and outcomes that the employee is responsible for. This gives employees the space to have big ideas, makes mistakes and take ownership of their work. These are all key ingredients for both incremental and radical innovation.

Multipliers vs. Diminishers

This isn’t just gut feeling. The research bears it out: if you tend to treat employees like order-takers rather than creative problem-solvers, you are diminishing their capacity. Liz Wiseman and the Wiseman Group studied 150 leaders in 35 companies worldwide and found that most managers underestimate how much their employees’ talents are being underutilized. In the book Multipliers, Wiseman separates leaders into two groups: Diminishers and Multipliers. While leaders of both types may agree on matters of business acumen and customer focus, the research shows each views the world through a different lens that causes them to either multiply or diminish the potential of their team members.

Put simply, Diminishers tend to assume that people can’t figure things out without them. Despite demanding creativity, they micromanage, pressure employees to perform faster, set bigger goals for employees, and jump in to make decisions for them.

Multipliers, on the other hand, give their people much more space to think and find answers for themselves — an essential ingredient for cultivating the right environment for creativity and fostering entrepreneurial ownership for the realization of results.

As their names imply, one leadership style diminishes results and one multiplies them, but it surprised the researchers to discover just how big the gains were for multiplier leaders. Across companies and industries, the Multiplier style accessed twice as much of their employees’ capacity and intellectual power as the Diminisher style did.

Even worse was how unaware Diminishers were that the management practices they were using were limiting their employees from fully utilizing their intelligence and potential. Many Diminishers believe themselves to be good leaders while accidentally diminishing the capacity of their team.

Taking stock of your workplace micromanagement habits.

Are you an accidental Diminisher? You might be if you:

  • Like to jump in to rescue people or projects.
  • Need to be constantly in the loop to ensure everyone is doing what you believe they’re supposed to be doing.
  • Worry about the inevitable disasters that will occur if you don’t oversee everything.
  • Get frustrated when people question you or your recommendations.
  • Take up a lot of air space in meetings with your enthusiasm and ideas.

Micromanagers hold on to their power as they worry that creativity means chaos.  This can sometimes be the case — take, for instance, the study by Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management that shows that creative thinking can often be correlated with chaotic or messy environments.

Letting go of micromanagement

Does that mean  that managers should completely take their hands off of the wheel to allow unfettered creativity and innovation (and mess)? Probably not! Wiseman found that Multipliers were better at fostering creativity and entrepreneurship not because they exerted no control at all, but rather because they had a better understanding of WHERE they should and shouldn’t exert control in defining foundations and supporting capacity building. Creativity requires freedom, but specific limitations and goals are necessary to focus creativity in the direction of business outcomes.

This is one of the biggest “ahas” participants have in the project planning sessions I teach. Innovation doesn’t occur when you randomly let stuff happen. It evolves out of clearly defining the purpose, principles and vision of a project so that you can step back and trust in the expertise of your team to move it towards the desired result in the best way possible. This is the ultimate difference between being a micromanager and a true leader. The micromanager is down there in the forest trying to force all employees to chop trees in exactly the same way. The leader is up on the mountain, making sure that they are still chopping in the right forest, thinking of ideas to complete the project more effectively, and being at the ready to jump in and support if anyone calls for help.

Harnessing the multiplier effect

To tap into the multiplier effect, encourage creativity and foster entrepreneurial passion within your team, try to:

  • Ask more questions and wait longer before jumping in with your own answers.
  • Ensure everyone knows the values, principles, vision, and purpose that guide team decisions.
  • Make sure everyone on the team knows the results that they are responsible for achieving and has the skills, resources, and support they need to take action and get results independently.
  • Support employees to figure out how to do their jobs best, instead of telling them how you think they should do it.
  • Provide employees with training, goals and resources when they ask for them.
  • Trust they are smart enough make day to day decisions and solve many problems without constant input.

The bottom line? In today’s dynamic business world, leaders need to get comfortable with releasing control over day-to-day processes and specific actions. Instead, they should focus on becoming experts at building the capacity of their team to deliver the entrepreneurial passion and creativity necessary to lead the market.

Want more like this?

Previously on the blog, we’ve featured two key mindset shifts that forward-thinking leaders and employees must make to initiate and drive positive transformation in their workplace. The first was to shift from a surviving mindset to a mindset that dares to take risks and set its sights higher. The second workplace transformation mindset shift involves focusing more on being of service than on gaining/maintaining status.

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