Learning to help without interfering!

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

I am prone to micromanaging although I know of and suffer all of its concomitant perils. It was the US Army’s General George S. Patton, a leader in one of the most traditional command and control groups in the world, who famously remarked: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Micromanaging isn’t easy – for both micromanager and micromanaged. There’s telling research evidence to show people have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help, and that it can erode interpersonal relationships.

Bosses who intervene very often or too extensively in their subordinates’ activities end up burdening themselves with the latter’s work, as well as making decisions for them. And this taxes valuable executive time.

When people are micromanaged, it undermines their learning and progress, which by extension hampers organisational growth. This often results in talented people, who prefer more autonomy at work and little micromanaging, quitting.

But opting for the other extreme response – such as adopting a completely hands-off approach – won’t work well either. Re­searchers and academics Colin Fisher, Teresa Amabile and Julianna Pillemer writing in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) say: “Managers shouldn’t be completely laissez-faire especially when subordinates aren’t co-located as is the case for many during the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

“People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice or encouragement; they need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues – providing it can be challenging without opportunities for serendipitous encounters in a physical office,” they add.

Following extensive research, they spell out three practical strategies for being a hands-on boss without micromanaging. First, time your help so it comes when people are ready for it. Then, be clear your role is to be a helper rather than judge or evaluator. And align the rhythm of your intervention so that its intensity and frequency meets people’s specific requirements.

Let’s explore these strategies…

TIME YOUR HELP When you get involved in your employees’ work, timing matters – but not in the way you might expect. Conventional wisdom dictates that prevention is better than cure. But researchers reveal that the leaders who are looked on as most helpful don’t preempt every problem or dive in as soon as they spot one.

Instead, they watch and listen until they’re convinced that their subordinates recognise the need for help and are ready to pay attention receptively. They realise people are more willing to receive assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.

A manager at a design consultancy firm had discovered what he felt were some fundamental issues with the project’s scope. Instead of jumping in to sort it out, he told the project lead that he was available if the team needed help. Then he waited patiently until the project lead figured out how they could use his assistance.

HELPING ROLE Managers play many different roles and their responsibilities entail appraising employees’ performance, and doling out rewards and punishments. So if managers step in without articulating their roles and intentions, most people feel threatened and tend to look on them with suspicion.

To save their hide, people cloak the real issues – or at least downplay them – and even withhold critical information. They may be unreceptive to the assistance, as well as defensive, demoralised or even hostile, which impedes creativity and performance.

Since seeking and getting help can make people feel vulnerable, managers must clarify their roles when intervening in employees’ work. They should articulate that they are there to help and not to evaluate or take over. Managers must foster psychological safety in an environment where interpersonal risks are present.

PEOPLE’S NEEDS To offer people useful help, leaders must take the time to fathom employees’ real problems especially when they’re thorny. They will need to engage at a deeper level if the work is complex, creative and cognitively taxing. This means walking the talk. It also means making time and paying attention in a pattern that works for receivers.

Researchers 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. Leaders should be able to tell the difference and recognise where a combined strategy is called for, and respond accordingly.

While you have to tailor your helping policy to fit each situation, these three strategies will serve as important guideposts.