Koan #16: Who Manages The Micromanagers

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 17 May 2021 newsletter.


You are responsible for a team of managers. During skip-level 1:1s, where you meet with the direct reports of one of the managers, Robert, you identify a worrying theme. Based on the feedback, Robert seems to have controlling tendencies and gives his direct reports little room for autonomy and ownership. The team also mentioned a lack of constructive feedback and positive recognition and the general feeling of being undervalued. It is clear that Robert’s leadership style is suffocating the team, and may be partly responsible for increased employee turnover in Robert’s team over the last year. You recognise it is important to address this situation, but you also know that Robert has a tendency to react defensively and get demotivated easily by negative feedback. What would you do?

Option A - Present Robert with a summary of the team’s feedback. Tell Robert how they can change their behaviour to be better.

Option B - Present Robert with a summary of findings. Ask Robert to work out the differences with their team.

Option C - Find something positive to say to Robert, to bring their positivity up, after presenting their team’s feedback.

Option D - Give Robert a specific example and explain the impact his behaviour had. Discuss how they could’ve approached it differently.


The situation indeed sounds a bit dire. A team that feels undervalued and constantly pushed without feedback or praise is likely to have burnt out individuals and it is no wonder the turnover rate is in Robert’s team is high. Expecting defensiveness and easy demotivation from Robert further complicates things. However, it also is the first clue towards overcoming resistance - a situation from two weeks ago. This time, it is a single person, but the same rules can be applied: Prepare, Listen, and Facilitate.

Constructive feedback should always be specific. Therefore, while doing the skip level 1:1s, you should take notes. It is also worth asking Robert’s team members if you can share specific examples. Then, it is worth considering why Robert micromanages in the first place. Most often, it is driven by fear. Robert might not even be aware of the implications of his behaviour. It is also worth reflecting on whether Robert’s senior leaders are doing anything that Robert has unconsciously picked up as an accepted practice. More on this subject can be found in this Forbes article.

As defined, options A & B from last week present Robert with just a summary of the feedback. Considering Robert’s defensiveness - without additional details - it might make Robert resentful of you or their team. Asking Robert to resolve the issue - Option B - is doubtful to happen without any help. Worse, Robert’s team may feel they were thrown under the bus. Telling Robert how to fix this - Option A - is also not ideal. Referring back to the overcoming resistance article, we know that people feel more engaged with a change if it comes from within, not without. One of the subscribers provided an excellent point on how to handle the summary vs specific example trade-off:

Reporting about how the whole team doesn’t like Robert’s style would be too negative. Focus on an example that hits the most common complaint, e.g. micromanagement. Give very specific advice about how to improve, so it’s actionable and not likely to lead to feeling bad. Due to Robert’s defensiveness overwhelming with too much information will lead to inaction.

The next step is to listen. Having specific examples should make it easy to present the feedback in the radical candor framework by Kim Scott. We know Robert is likely to be defensive at first and may feel attacked or hurt that their work and results are valued negatively. Going into arguing about the past situations is of no use. Therefore, it is better to acknowledge their distress and concerns but then shift focus towards the future.

This is where a GROW coaching framework fits perfectly. In short, GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options, and a Way Forward. The goal is to fix the micromanagement issue, and presenting the examples established the current reality. Now it is time to brainstorm options together with Robert. What they could do differently? It is good to have a couple of options prepared beforehand to help facilitate this process.

Finally, establish check-points with Robert - when/how often you will follow-up on their progress, as well as whether there are any quantitative aspects that could be measured. In the case of this situation - continuing with skip level 1:1s can provide a “temperature check” on Robert’s progress.

In summary, the only mutually positive way forward is if Robert can understand how their specific behaviours are impacting the team and their own performance. The steps outlined above is just one way to try and help Robert. If you are familiar with OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) methodology - you might want to look into CFR (Continuous Feedback & Recognition). Alternatively, as one subscriber has reminded us, 360 feedback sessions may also be worth considering if the organisations’ culture supports it.