Managed to distraction

The Life: Employees might shudder at the thought of being micro-managed by a superior. But when used correctly, at the right time, leaders can improve a business by digging into details.

Steve Jobs's obsession with detail was integral to his highly effective leadership at Apple. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News
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The idea of being micromanaged by a superior might send shivers up the spines of employees.

This is definitely an emotive topic but one that can have a positive impact on an organisation or can cripple employee engagement.

During interviews with leaders over the past several months, the theme of micromanaging regularly emerged as the "boss" was being criticised for getting into too much detail as people were working. Leaders in different sectors are complaining that their bosses micromanage them.

One question that might come to my mind is: is micromanaging good or bad? But this needs to be replaced with: are there times when micromanaging can be valuable?

One corporate team I know of was in desperate need of a turnaround. When its new leader came in, he started micromanaging - and, without intending to, he wound up frustrating his team to the point that team members began disengaging.

But there was a need for someone to be different within the business, as it was missing a plan on every level. This leader needed to understand everything in detail and to be very directive. Yet the people he was leading were clearly frustrated by his attention to detail, and they wanted to be left to their own devices.

The problem is these were the same workers who created the mess and were now telling their boss that they did not need his leadership or his focus on details. But in reality, this was exactly what they needed - a leader who was obsessed with detail, much like Steve Jobs was at Apple and many other successful chief executives are and were.

Micromanagement inevitably makes experienced managers uncomfortable. Yet, it provides comfort to inexperienced front-line employees who crave clarity. Even though many, if not most, experienced managers do not like to be micromanaged, the question remains whether there is space for micromanagement if the desired results are not being produced.

Contrary to popular belief, I think there is.

But when leaders micromanage, they need to evaluate whether they are being restrictive or proscriptive. If their ideas hold a business back, it is time to keep quiet. However, if their ideas and insights can propel the business forward, then it is best to push the team to get better.

Leaders looking for a simple test to determine whether they exhibit successful hands-on leadership may want to ask: why are you doing it that way, or, how can it be better?

One of the central issues in knowing when to micromanage, and how to do it, resides in having a proper view of a business's capability. If a leader represents a million-dollar business and does not have a million-dollar leadership team, he or she will need to micromanage. If the business is consistently losing market share to a competitor, and the leader can identify what to do better, it is time to be hands-on and lead the business to improvement.

Ultimately, successful micromanagement depends on a person's motive, and how much others trust that person. While Jobs was known not to be the nicest guy in town, his company's team trusted him and knew what his motives were.

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, the author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Market Leadership Center