A perpetual challenge leaders face is helping their employees without crossing over into micromanaging them. There are many areas that a leader can help his or her team members; they have become a leader because of experience and expertise. This assistance, however, can be counter-productive when it becomes micromanagement and inhibits the employee’s efforts. People have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and it also can erode working relationships. More importantly, it prevents your team members from displaying their ingenuity.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, How to Help (Without Micromanaging) by Colin Fisher, Teresa Amabile and Julianna Pillemer, provides useful advice and techniques to assist in helping your team members while minimizing the negative consequences. The authors point out that this assistance is more important in our Covid-19 environment, especially with complex work that often needs more than just superficial advice or encouragement.
Just as a great athlete waits for the play to develop rather than forcing the action, a great leader watches and listens for when their subordinates see the need for help and are prepared to heed the assistance. This approach is different than the traditional model of trying to anticipate and prevent problems before they develop. As they say in the article, “[Strong leaders] understand that people are more willing to welcome assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.”
A good approach is to start by listening. Talk to your team about the situation. Ask what is happening and get to the root of the problem. There are multiple benefits to this approach:
- You will understand the problem. Rather than rushing in and fixing the wrong thing, you will know what needs to be addressed.
- They will have a chance to explore the situation and potentially come up with a better solution.
- If there is no identifiable solution, the team is more likely to be open to or even ask for assistance.
Fischer, Amabile and Pillemer worked on this approach with multiple organizations and found substantial benefits. According to them, “we found that when advice was given in the course of teams’ work, after problems had emerged rather than beforehand, members understood and valued it more. This led them to actually use the help, improve their processes, share more information, and make objectively better decisions than did groups that received more instruction at the start of their discussions….[W]e’d counsel managers not to provide input without first allowing those they supervise to gain knowledge of the task and express their views on it. In many cases, a well-timed cure may be better than that ounce of prevention.”
Stress you are there to help
The second key to helping is to clarify your role is to help, not to judge. Many employees will believe that asking for (and getting) advice and help makes them appear vulnerable and weak, potentially putting them in a bad position. They also might believe that having their boss help will lead to them being judged, potentially negatively.
Good leaders will create an environment of psychological safety that encourages interpersonal risks. You should explain that your role is to help, not to judge or take over the work. You need to emphasize continually that the employee is still in charge of the project and that your role is to help make them more effective.
You also need to state clearly that you are not intervening to assess the employee. Fischer, Amabile and Pillemer write, “when managers clarified their intentions … employees were more candid about the problems they faced and more willing to accept help and work collaboratively to solve them. Don’t assume that employees concerned about performance reviews and pay can accurately discern your intentions. No matter how supportive you are as a boss, they won’t forget that part of your job is to monitor and assess them. So when you start taking a stronger hand in their work, assure them that you’re there as an adviser, not an evaluator. Be explicit about what you are trying to accomplish with your intervention.”
Match the cadence of help to the type of need
Just as you do not want to rush into giving assistance, you also want the situation to drive the cadence and structure of the help you provide. If you jump in and provide help without fully assessing the situation, you are likely to provide sub-optimal guidance. You need to devote sufficient time to understand your employees’ problems. If the issue is complex or creative, you will need to engage deeply. Fischer, et.al. explain, “it … means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for receivers. We call this the rhythm of involvement, and it will vary depending on whether employees need intensive guidance in the short term or intermittent path clearing over a prolonged period.”
In complex situations, you need to provide concentrated guidance. This help entails working closely with your employees in long sessions tightly clustered over a few days. Given the depth of involvement, you can easily drift into micromanagement. To avoid micromanaging, you need to clarify your role as a helper and ensure your team is ready for the assistance. By taking these steps, your assistance should be welcomed.
If the situation does not require concentrated guidance, your role should be that of a path clearer. In this situation, you offer assistance in shorter, sporadic intervals when employees face ongoing problems. The authors write, “path clearers maintain enough general knowledge about the project to understand emerging needs but seldom dig into the core work. Rather, they look for smaller ways to give relief to their subordinates…. Leaders trying this approach shouldn’t underestimate the importance of staying informed about the work. Those who fail to do so can provide only shallow criticism or vague advice when they drop in.”
Being a good helper makes everyone a winner
By following the three steps above when assisting your employees, your team resolves issues faster while still unleashing their creativity. It also helps you improve your team’s health as they see you as a leader who helps, rather than another problem they need to deal with.
- Leaders have the experience and skills to help their employees deal with difficult problems, but they must ensure they do not end up micromanaging, thus inhibiting their employees motivation and creativity.
- To provide effective help, wait for your employees to realize they need assistance and take the time to understand the situation fully. When you help, use this knowledge to match your assistance to their needs.
- Stress your role is to provide assistance and that your focus is on helping rather than judging.