Micro-Managing is Dead. Long Live Micro-Managing

A New Paradigm for People Leadership

The death of managing the work

When I became a manager in the early 1990s, I was expected to on top of my team’s work as job #1. Focus them on the right tasks, correct the work where needed, and coach people so they could independently do the work well. I was expected to manage and develop people, but the work was what mattered. 

This paradigm of “managing the work” has collapsed and here’s why:

  1. Work has become deeply specialized. Teams are made up of deep subject matter experts. A marketing team might have roles focused on brand management, digital media, analytics, data science, personalization, retail marketing, and ecommerce. A manager simply won’t have the deep knowledge across these specialties to effectively manage the work.
  2. Teams are distributed. A great deal of the work happens out of sight. The opportunities to work “shoulder to shoulder,” coaching, directing, and role modeling are greatly diminished.
  3. Values have changed. Employees today value flexibility, autonomy, room to maneuver. They want leaders to build purpose, connection and meaning into the work. They want to be developed; they don’t want to be micro-managed.

Managers today feel challenged, and it’s no wonder. They’re being asked to play a fundamentally different and very challenging role. A new paradigm is needed to guide managers today.

Micro-managing the environment

Managers need to shift focus from managing the work to managing the environment of the team to unleash performance. This is what employees want, and what managers can uniquely do. 

This starts with defining the purpose and values of the team. Why does this team exist? What is its unique mission? What does it mean to belong to this team?  Our experience shows that high performing teams often have a “manifesto” that articulates the answers to these questions. On one Transformation Team I managed we articulated our purpose as “leading the big bets that would transform Marketing’s ability to drive growth for the company.” This built team identity and drove unusually high motivation. However, this is just the start.

The manager has to be able to describe how each role contributes to the success of the team’s manifesto and the broader organization. This creates clarity for each individual and makes them feel highly accountable for performing since the stakes of achieving or missing their goals are clear.

On day-to-day basis managers then need to focus on the details of the team environment that build inclusion and meaning. This might include:

  • When the team physically gets together and how that time is curated.
  • How new recruits are welcomed and introduced to the team.
  • The format for how daily/weekly/monthly meetings are run, and how different voices are heard.
  • How feedback is asked for, given, and received.
  • Rituals for how the team spends time getting to know each other personally.

In short, managers need to micro-manage the environment. When the team has a clear purpose, when there is a strong sense of belonging in the team, and where the environment is one of trust vs fear, performance is unleased. Employees will be at their full potential, eliminating the need to micro-manage their work. 

A new set of skills

Managing the team environment in this way requires a new set of skills for a team leader. These are less technical or functional skills and more emotional or human skills. Our experience suggests five new competencies required for a successful manager. 

Laddering To Purpose: Purpose doesn’t exist only at the company level; it exists at the team level as well. Managers must be trained in how to create and articulate purpose and values. This is a learnable, practicable skill. There are approaches and methods for understanding what a team purpose might be and linking a person’s role to that purpose.

Seeing Others: We are social creatures that thrive on inclusion. Team leaders need the skills to create a sense of belonging where employees feel seen, understood, and accepted. This rests on some fundamental skills such as listening, empathy, and having productive hard conversations. 

Psychological Safety: The research is very clear. The biggest driver of team performance is its degree of psychological safety. Meaning employees feel they can speak out and offer ideas without fear of recrimination. Creating this safety rests on several known skills such as being vulnerable, having open communication, and handling conflict constructively. 

Team Resilience: The increased rate of disruptive change in our world and companies has led to higher stress and more distraction among most of us. A team leader, not just the CEO, must have the skill to help people emotionally navigate change so the team can stay focused. This involves communication skills (how to balance present reality and hope) and interpersonal skills (how to help employees struggling with stress and burnout). 

The Big One

All these skills rest on one foundational quality needed by managers – self-awareness. To build purpose, see and help others, and create environments of trust and safety managers must know and be strong in themselves. Their own personal purpose and set of guiding values need to be clear in their mind. Fortunately, acquiring this type of self-awareness is also a skill that can be practiced and honed over the course of a career. It is the super-power of team performance.

The world has changed; manager training has to change with it. We need to move from technical training focused on helping managers manage work, to human-based skill training that enables managers to create environments where subject matter experts can thrive. This will improve employee experience, employee performance, and company results. And who doesn’t want that?



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