“Do you want me to do this or do you want to do it yourself?” How many times in your career have you had that thought? You’re given an important task to accomplish by your supervisor, who then insists on inserting himself in the process, asking you to “check in” with him or her so that he or she can “make sure it’s being done correctly.”
I’ve had several conversations with clients over the years about this identical situation. The head of a department who is told that he’s responsible for bringing in the numbers and making sure it’s profitable, but unable to make decisions on pricing, hiring, training, or marketing without approval from the boss. The manager who develops a strategy and budget for the year, but has to “run it by” the senior leadership team to make sure she’s doing it “correctly” (even though senior leadership has shared no vision, mission, or overall corporate strategy).
In the first job of my corporate career, I was the Marketing Manager for an international corporation, which meant I was in charge of creating brochures, data sheets, and helping create large proposals (after all, I was a former English teacher and knew all that “word stuff”). My first boss was a manipulative, mean-spirited man who enjoyed putting people in positions where he would help make life miserable for them. He was a chess player and seemed to see the corporate environment as a chess board, with those who weren’t on “his team” as opponents to maneuver off the board.
One of my first assignments was to help gather data for a potential acquisition. I was given notebooks of material and told to create a summary of how the targeted company’s products and services lined up with ours. Was there synergy, redundancy, or gaps that would help the executives in their decision making?
I had never done anything like this before, but I had done a lot of literary analysis and found that the tools I had developed in my former area of expertise carried over nicely into this assignment. So I holed myself up in an office and began creating hand-written spreadsheets the first day.
My boss came in and asked what I thought I was doing? That this wasn’t the right way to do it and that I should check in with him twice a day with the progress of the work I had completed to make sure I was “on track.” This progressed for two weeks and I became increasingly frustrated because his “improvements” and criticisms were so petty that I realized I just had to keep doing what I originally set out to do. “Do you want me to do this or do you want to do it yourself?”
While these check-ins added to the time it took for me to complete the assignment, I also learned an important first lesson. Make the boss look good. When the project was completed, I quickly discovered that my boss took the credit for the work I had done and that the “check-ins” were ways he could understand the work without doing any of it himself.
When I moved into a leadership position, I remembered this experience and swore that I would never put anyone who worked with me through a similar experience. But what framework could I use to remind myself to do what I wanted to do?
The Leadership Triangle
I realized that every position in an organization – from the Board to the CEO to the Senior Leadership Team to their direct reports and their direct reports all the way throughout the organization – needs to have a clear understanding of three, key elements to any job:
- Authority – what’s the power delegated to me to accomplish my…
- Responsibilities – the specific tasks I’m expected and agreed to accomplish, and for which I’m…
- Accountable – to what level I’m answerable for the responsibilities I’ve been empowered to accomplish
In a highly functional organization, the Board or ownership empower the chief executive with the authority to accomplish the responsibilities for which they hold him or her accountable. The chief executive then delegates some of his or her authority to others so they can accomplish defined responsibilities for which they’re accountable. Ideally, this cascades throughout the organization in such a way that everyone is clear on their primary focus areas and know what they know their responsibilities. Even though there are responsibilities within the “white spaces” (those areas where there’s no clear responsibility designated), beginning with this model can help coordinate work much more easily.
My View of Accountability
I frequently hear people talk about the need to “hold people accountable.” I have a different – and often heatedly disputed – view. I don’t believe you can hold anyone accountable. You can hold them compliant, but then you usually don’t get their best work. Think about your own job. I’m sure there are tasks you have to complete that are simply “check the box” to get them done and you don’t really care about the level of quality that you’ve completed the work.
You can only hold yourself accountable for those tasks and work that you deeply care about or are part of a way to address your concerns. When you’re engaged in this kind of work, you’ll hold yourself more accountable than anyone could possibly “hold you accountable.”
I hope your blood pressure didn’t spike with that observation, but it’s just the way I see it. You might see it differently. But I hope it will make you stop and think about it the next time you hear the phrase or say it yourself.
What happens when you’ve delegated authority to accomplish responsibilities for which you’re accountable – and you insist on “checking in” on the work (frequently) to make sure “it’s done correctly” (the way I would do it)? Whenever you remove the authority from the triangle, you’ve set up a condition that is the definition of micromanagement – “controlling every part, however small, of an enterprise or activity… In business management, micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls… the work of his or her subordinate employees… it shows a lack of freedom in the workplace.” (Wikipedia)
If you’re a leader who has a tendency to micromanage, you might use what Bob Anderson and Bill Adams describe as a “Controlling” strategy – a “Reactive (Socialized) Mind” hallmark. Controlling “measures the extent to which the leader establishes a sense of personal worth through task accomplishment and personal achievement.” (“Mastering Leadership,” p. 306) Being a perfectionist, driven, ambitious, and autocratic are dimensions of using a Controlling strategy.
One of the possible characteristics of a leader using Controlling strategy is a weakness to authentically relate to others. After all, if you think it’s your job (and yours alone) to get the job done, you can begin to see others as merely tools to help you get work accomplished. You’re unaware of the impact of your behavior on others because it’s so important for you to finish the job.
But before we go too far is engaging in what may appear to be blame, let’s look at one more scenario.
Fred Kofman, in his book, “Conscious Business,” describes one of the key responsibilities of leadership to be “Unconditional Responsibility.” How do you respond to a situation in which you’re experiencing micromanagement?
Kofman uses the illustration of dropping a pen. Hold a pen in front of you and drop it. Ask yourself, “Why did the pen drop?” Most people will answer, “Gravity,” but Kofman reminds you the pen dropped because you dropped it. This is the difference between “Unconditional Responsibility” (the “player”) and “Unconditional Blame” (the “victim”).
How you respond to any situation is up to you. “You are not responsible for your circumstances,” Kofman writes, “you are response-able in the face of your circumstances… The victim pays attention to those factors he or she cannot influence. The player pays attention to those factors he or she can influence.”
What choices are you making? What are you choosing to pay attention to in situations where you’re assessing that you’re being micromanaged? Are your responses choices or automatic responses? How do you want to respond?
In every situation in which two human beings are engaged and they experience a breakdown, each has a role to play. It doesn’t help to be stuck in “victim” mindset.
“It’s simply a case of mind over matter. I don’t mind because you don’t matter.” – Anonymous
One final note on the Leadership Triangle. There’s another “side” to micromanagement and it’s when people are empowered to do the delegated responsibilities but don’t accept the accountability dimension. This is the “I love to exercise power but don’t ask me to be answerable for what I’m doing; that’s someone else’s responsibility.” I searched for a word that would best describe the malaise that’s taken over much of the workforce and I settled on “apathy.”
According to Gallup, 70% of the workforce is not engaged in their work and Buckingham, in “Nine Lies About Work” puts the global disengagement above 80%. Why are people not engaged in their work? They don’t care about what they’re doing and, by not caring, there’s no way they’d be accountable.
One of the responsibilities of leadership is to set a compelling vision and purpose for the work they’re doing, the build a team of committed individuals to fulfill the vision and purpose. But one of the responsibilities of the employee is to bring his or her purpose to the work and align it with the organizational purpose. You have to care about what you do and believe it’s important work, contributing to the well-being of others.
As a leader, are you clear on what authority has been delegated to you to perform specific responsibilities for which you’re accountable? Have you delegated that to your direct reports? Is everyone throughout the organization clear on these three elements? If so, you’ve taken a big step in reducing confusion and gaining clarity. It’s a step and not “the answer.”
In an increasingly VUCA-filled environment, we’re constantly faced with challenges that we can’t anticipate. But establishing clarity of understanding with foundational elements of your organization is an important first step.
© Geoff Davis 3/13/20