The Line Between Micro Management and Leadership

When things are going poorly, a natural response is for managers to get closer to the details. This can come across as micro management to others and they can be defensive about it. There is an important difference between micro management and leadership.

Leadership is the art of going from the current state to the desired state. Understanding what’s going on and where to go next requires good explanations otherwise they will set the wrong direction for the group. The key is understanding. Leaders need to be curious to dig into the details, ask the right questions, and drive change—that doesn’t mean prescribe all of the details (especially dangerous if they are not an expert).

In a recent interview, Toto Wolff (Mercedes F1 manager), he said what I think captures the difference. “Do you give me the benefit of the doubt that I have reason to question? What went wrong and how we can we avoid this in the future.” He knows that how to detect and eliminate errors is the most important knowledge. By being curious, pressing for explanations he can drive change even in a highly technical area without micro managing.

See also:

  • Delegation Not Abdication

    A common mistake for early managers is to delegate work ineffectively. They try to do what they think their direct reports would want—assign a task and be completely hands-off. It’s the right instinct but seldom yields the right results. Problems occur when mistaking abdication for delegation.

  • Benign Neglect

    Most managers, at best, are a form of benign neglect. Continual attention (micro management) usually results in the opposite of what a manager hopes for—less motivation from employees, learned helplessness, and worse performance. Benign neglect leaves room for employees to have agency to do their work but it’s kind of like the placebo effect, maybe most managers are better off doing nothing at all.