There is no greater disservice as a leader to our teams than to micromanage them. It baffles my mind that micromanaging is still a thing, and that anyone should have to spend any time sorting out and highlighting the differences between leadership and management. But the longer I serve in a leadership role, the more carrots I see dangling around tempting people towards this fool’s errand.
What’s the problem with micromanaging? Signs and symptoms include making people feel untrusted, patronized, undervalued, inept, disengaged, and well…basically like crap. If these symptoms sound familiar it’s because they probably are—most of us at some point throughout our own careers have experienced being micromanaged and we promised that we would never, ever, never ever do it to someone else. But despite all of our promises, some of us gave into this management tool and leveraged its short-term usefulness at a higher long-term cost. If micromanaging makes people feel so terrible, then why do leaders still do it?
Unfortunately, the reality is that more often than not when micromanaging occurs it is because the leader has allowed the situation he or she is supposed to have command over fool them into thinking that resorting to trying to control people, rather than influence them is necessary to achieve success. So let’s look at the difference between having command, exerting influence, and resorting to control in an effort to see which ones you might be doing and the impact of each.
1. Command—It’s no surprise that someone has to be in charge.
In order for organizations and teams to be successful leaders must be able to create, communicate, and motivate their teams towards a common operating vision or expectation. For this to happen, it must be clear which vision, or more aptly whose vision, is responsible for driving the decisions, actions, and consequences to our teams. As such, someone has to be in charge, or as we commonly refer to it—command. The need to have command applies whether it’s to our incident commanders on the fire ground, our formal and informal leaders on-shift in the firehouses, and regardless of whether we operate in a staff or operations position. Responsibility and consequences must ultimately lay at the feet of someone. As such it’s no surprise that someone has to be in charge, and everyone has a boss—even the fire chief.
In the fire service command is achieved through hierarchy. At times people, especially our youngest generation of firefighters, seem to have a problem with that. I believe that people begin to have problems with hierarchy when they are subjected to a boss who leads poorly— this largely has to do with “how” they command. For example, as a leader when you coach or even counsel an employee, do you ever offer the mistakes you’ve made along the way as footholds for them to stand on to see your point? Or do you keep the focus squarely on their mistake for fear of appearing fallible?
2. Influence (and the art of delegating)
All leaders should strive to exert influence throughout their teams. The strongest leaders leave an impression that employees continue to model long after they have grown up and left the nest. Influence is created when we combine intentionally investing in our people personally and professionally, while simultaneously creating space for them to try out what they are learning. There is a strong difference between influencing and controlling aka micromanaging. The former is filled with humility, grace, delegation, and mentoring; while the latter has very little do with creating opportunities for professional and personal growth, and ultimately empowerment of our teams. Micromanaging is a factory towards producing employee discontent, poisoning morale, and ultimately creating disengagement.
So how does one influence others? One of the ways we can most easily do this is through delegation. But be warned, too often leaders simply dump a task onto a teammate in the name of delegation, but provide little to no support to help them manage the load. As a result, delegation has a dirty connotation in the fire service, suggesting nothing more than a lazy supervisor. Also, influence is not efficient. If you are on a deadline, it can be difficult to allow people the time to make decisions, while also building in the time necessary to fix and learn from mistakes. Influence can be messy and difficult at times, because it allows people to make decisions for themselves, and leaders must be willing to risk the conflict and setbacks that come with this trial and error.
But, I would much rather see my team make decisions for themselves, then be frozen by having to clear everything through my position. Encouraging this, not just allowing it, is the first step in actually creating employee engagement versus just saying we do. A leader must trust that their team’s decision in public is right because they know how much they have challenged and invested in them in private.
Leaders must also assume the responsibility and outcome that comes with delegating, which is often where well-intentioned leaders delegate an assignment on paper but then quickly get sucked into too closely supervising its progress. This is a warning sign of resorting to control and eventually micromanaging. If you are encountering resistance to your leadership, especially from your A-game people, it’s quite possible that you are attempting to take command and exert control where it’s not needed (or welcome). If you fail to recognize this micromanaging you risk damaging professional and at times even personal relationships.
3. Control (aka The Micromanager)
Before we start our conversation about how to recognize when we have stopped influencing our teams and started micromanaging them I have to say this first—I am not without guilt. There have been times in my career where as a leader I found myself either doing someone else’s work, working overtop of a team-member even though I delegated the task to them previously, or even refusing to allow outside input when it could have been incredibly useful. We jokingly refer to it as “operating in the weeds”, but it is so much more serious than that. If not caught early and corrected, micromanaging has the ability to turn off even our most loyal and passionate team members. It also leads to an inferior product, despite how great you, the micromanager, think it is because it doesn’t encourage people to weigh-in, and certainly doesn’t help to secure their buy-in.
There are times when control is both appropriate and necessary. When risk is compounded with rapidly changing conditions, such as on the fireground, command must lead and crews must follow. We process what we see, relay it back to command, and then anticipate what’s requested next. No one complains about being ordered to stretch a hose line to fight fire in the interior (although we certainly like to quarterback the decision later). Control is appropriate for this situation, and any other in which the risk is great, while the time frame in which to make the decision is short before the risk gets worse. In these types of examples (which outside of an emergency scene are few), and only in these types of examples, should a leader even begin to think about resorting to control to lead. Assignments which are given with tight deadlines and having to train new people are typically the next temptations towards controlling our people too tightly. For example, it's 3 am and all you want to do is go back to bed but you are stuck at the hospital while the new ALS provider writes a call sheet taking an extra 45 minutes to do it. Are you the guy that helps him write it as needed, or takes over so you can get back in the bed sooner?
Has an employee ever brought you an issue that they only wanted to discuss and get an opinion on, only to end up with having you tell them exactly what to do and remove all options? Have you ever worked on a special project or committee where no matter what the committee recommended, the opposite was done because the person in charge had already decided the outcome? Have you ever been asked to do something completely within your purview, but through the necessary checks of hierarchy, you are told no because someone above you in the chain of command doesn’t understand your job enough to know whether it’s appropriate? If you’ve ever been told “great idea, but don’t’ do anything else until you check back with me”, then you’ve experienced another leader exerting full control.
Control is a highly addictive leadership quality because it can make you feel important and needed. Moreover, some people genuinely fall in love with telling others what to do. It also can create efficiency which is at times needed to correct course headings with individuals (think less leash versus more), or to change priorities of sections in our organizations. However, when we exert the full control of our leadership roles and responsibilities, we selfishly stifle the growth and creativity of others. Operating in this fashion places us at our highest likelihood of finding a new mantle of MICROMANAGER. The higher a leader goes in an organization, the more tempting it is to exert control. In reality, success at a higher level depends much more deeply on the ability to influence and trust others.
“It is the leader’s imperative to allow for their mistakes to serve as a foundation in which their team can leverage. Mistakes breed experience, and this experience should be leveraged and squeezed for every ounce of potential to help the team arrive at and ultimately make correct decisions. If mistakes are made the leader must approach them by combining coaching with humility. Leaders stand in front of their teams when things go wrong, and behind them when praise is to be received. The ability to consistently do all of these things is the difference between good and great leaders.”
Call to Action
-People underestimate how powerful sharing mistakes is for learning, and ultimately building stronger relationships. Mentoring at it’s simplest is the attempt to pass along our experience (good and bad) to help others navigate their own challenges. We certainly hope that these same folks will choose to model our best attributes and values when facing new and unfamiliar challenges, but it’s no guarantee. However, having command ignorant of the need to mentor is a sure fire way to keep breeding the same organizational problems you currently have.
-Leaders should avoid confusing success with actually being successful. Great leaders encourage their teams to take risk, be creative, and push the standard. This can and often does result in failure. Failure is a powerful catalyst and tool for personal and professional growth. When leaders give their teams opportunities to grow through a challenge, the growth is exponentially more than if we simply give them the answer to be successful outright.
-Hierarchy is effective, it’s why the fire department and other public safety agencies have adopted it. But instead of focusing on who works for you, try focusing on who you can work for. Rank is a force multiplier for creating opportunities for others. Hierarchy simply shows you where you should start first.
-The amount of control you choose to exert over your team members and direct reports is directly proportionate to the amount of trust you have in them. Great leaders should strive to control their teams as little as possible. Instead, leaders should seek to influence the work and character of those around them. The amount of influence you are able to exert within your teams is very dependent on how well you know your job. But, as fire departments change and evolve do not confuse knowing your job by assuming you also know theirs (even if you've done it). This is but one of the many traps of micromanaging. And remember...
"Delegation requires the willingness to pay for short term failures in order to gain long term competency." -Dave Ramsey
Benjamin Martin is a Lieutenant with the Henrico County Division of Fire, currently assigned to the training section. He has over fourteen years in public safety and speaks nationally on leadership. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). He is presenting at FDIC 2018: "Intoxicated Leadership: How to avoid leading under the influence of your emotions." He has published as a contributing author Honor & Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters & Their Families. He has written leadership articles for Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society for Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the owner and operator of the leadership training featured www.EmbraceTheResistance.com.