Behaviorism has long taught us that immediate and direct feedback is critical to reinforce the behaviors and outcomes we want. It has been the source of breakthrough books on leadership, such as the One-Minute Manager. But too much of a good thing can also be detrimental.
Long-standing research shows that employees have adverse emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help, which tends to erode interpersonal relationships. I have long coached micro-managing managers whose teams want them to back off a bit and give them more room to breathe.
Managers should not be completely hands-off, either. The sink and swim organizational cultures (“hit the goals or else” cultures) do not foster innovation. So, where is the sweet spot between micromanaging and too hands-off?
People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice and encouragement. They need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues. Extensive research shows that pervasive helping in organizations correlates with better performance and innovation than letting employees go it alone. For example, our research at InnovationOne has consistently shown that organizations that encourage organizational learning and individual learning are more innovative and financially successful.
How can managers effectively help struggling team members without being perceived as micromanaging?
New research (over the past ten years) published by Colin M Fisher, Teresa M Amabile, and Julianna Pillemer in the Harvard Business Review reveals essential insights into how managers can better assist their employees. The researchers have uncovered three critical strategies for being a hands-on boss without being micromanaging.
The first strategy is to time your assistance, so it comes when employees are ready for it. The authors write:
“Conventional wisdom suggests that heading off potential issues is the best strategy (recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”). We’ve found, however, that the leaders who are viewed as the most helpful don’t try to preempt every problem or dive in as soon as they recognize one. Instead, they watch and listen until they believe that subordinates see the need for help and are ready to listen receptively. They understand that people are more willing to welcome assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.”
The second strategy is to clarify that your role is to be a helper. Even when the timing is perfect, intervening can go wrong when it is not clear why you are getting involved. Managers play many different roles, and their responsibilities include evaluating employees and doling out rewards and punishments. This power dynamic can get in the way of effective help. The authors write:
“Because seeking and receiving help can make people feel so vulnerable, managers need to clarify their roles when intervening in employees’ work. They should explain that they are there to help, not to judge or take over.”
Managers need to foster what Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, calls psychological safety — an environment in which interpersonal risks are encouraged. Most of us call it trust. Many research studies show that trust is the number one trait needed for successful teams.
The third strategy, recommended by the authors, is to clarify that your role is to align the rhythm of your involvement—its intensity and frequency–with people’s specific needs. The authors write:
“To clarify useful help, leaders must take the time to fully understand employees’ problems, especially when the issues are thorny. If the work is complex, creative, and cognitively demanding, you will need to engage deeply. But that means more than delivering help with the right content. It also means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for receivers.”
The researchers call this the “rhythm of involvement.” It will vary depending on whether employees need intensive guidance in the short term or intermittent path clearing over a prolonged period.
The researchers believe that leaders can help their employees in hands-on and meaningful ways — without being accused of micromanaging — if they pay careful attention to timing, articulating their helping role up front, and match the rhythm of their assistance to the receiver’s’ needs. These guidelines, they believe, are especially important when teams are physically separated, as so many have been during the pandemic.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary innovation cultures, leaders, and teams.