Want to Improve Your Culture? Don’t Micromanage It

Leaders steer the culture of their organizations, actively or not. But leading well demands an awareness of when managing becomes controlling.

I didn’t attend the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition last week in Salt Lake City, but I did my best to keep up with the conversation on leadership there via the #asae16 hashtag. While doing that, I noticed a bunch of attendees gravitating toward a particular quote presented at the session “Strategies to Guide Your Association’s Culture”:

It’s not hard to see the appeal of the quote, attributed to education experts Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker. It sends the message that much of the job of the leader is to monitor the culture of an organization, but not to dictate it. The leader establishes a tone, draws the lines. But ultimately the organization is defined by the people who surround it—members, staffers, customers. It challenges leaders to be at once hands-on and hands-off.

“Never let people think they’re owners if you aren’t willing to let them own.”

And that balancing act is trickier than it’s ever been. In recent years, the idea of strict top-down leadership has taken a beating, thanks to ROWEs, holacracies, remote staffing, and other structures designed to let employees take ownership of their duties. But Zappos’ high-profile experiment in employee self-management has struggled, Amazon’s online system of reviewing coworkers themselves led to some scrums, and distributed staffs require a lot of care and feeding. In the July issue of the Harvard Business Review, Zappos’ John Bunch and a trio of leadership scholars do a deep-dive into the complexity of getting self-management to take off, with some honest talk about how Zappos still struggles to get holacracy working.

So however you arrange your staff structure, you’re still back to the same old question: How much do you step in and how much do you pull back when it comes to managing people?

In a follow-up piece to the HBR article, Harvard Business School’s Ethan Bernstein and management expert Niko Canner offer a few answers to that question by looking at why leaders lapse into the opposite of employee empowerment: micromanagement. In some ways, they write, new technology has made it easier to keep looking over everybody’s shoulders: “We start off trusting, but verifying, that people are clear about the desired outcomes and capable of delivering on them. But we’ve become so great at verifying, thanks to our “smart,” all-seeing workplaces, that the sponsor can observe the owner’s every move.”

But the core enabler for micromanagement is not new-fangled technology but old-fashioned trust—and leadership. Too often, Bernstein and Canner write, projects get derailed because leaders failed to clearly articulate what the goals of a project are, mutually understand its constraints, and provide enough oversight to give the employee to sense that the work has value. All of this puts pressure on leaders to be honest both with themselves and their employees about how much freedom they have. “Keep it real,” Canner and Bernstein advise. “Never let people think they’re owners if you aren’t willing to let them own. If you’re the real owner, say so, make clear that the team member’s role is to help you, and explain what kind of help you need.”

To put it another way, and to return to where we started: The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior leaders are willing to tolerate—in themselves. If you dictate how things get done, and the culture becomes one where employees are disillusioned about their ability to claim ownership of their tasks. Set them free but fail to guide them, and they’ll question the value of the work that they’re doing.

The good news about all this is that the duty of leading an organization remains secure—however far away and self-empowered and self-directed workers are, somebody needs to set the tone about how work gets done and why that work is important. The challenge now is how to communicate that message while leaving workers more free to find value in the work they’re doing. The sweet spot will be different for every organization, but getting there requires every leader to be more up-front than ever about what they expect, and how much they’re truly willing to entrust to others.

How do you communicate expectations to employees at your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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