Delegating vs Micro-managing – can you tell the difference?

I can carry it myself. No, really.

It’s natural for business owners to feel reluctant to delegate. After all, their name and reputation is often all over the work. If the person they delegate to doesn’t come through with top quality work, it’s the owner who suffers most.

Still, learning to delegate effectively is essential to sustainable productivity, because you can’t work as long or as well if you try to do everything yourself. (As I’ve said before, Babe Ruth didn’t sew his own uniforms.)

Consider this key strategy for effective delegation: delegate the result, not the procedure. To dictate the exact path by which someone carries out a task is to micro-manage. When delegating let the other person take responsibility for successful completion of the objective; some leeway is usually necessary.

When I delegate my bookkeeping to someone else, I have not given up responsibility for having my books in order at the end of each month, quarter, and year. (Just ask the IRS whether I’m off the hook; they’ll say “no way!”) Look at it this way: the bookkeeper and I now each have full responsibility for my bookkeeping, but my responsibility has changed. The bookkeeper is responsible for doing the work, and I’m responsible for ensuring that it’s done.

In order for you to achieve sustainable productivity, you must delegate. Practice changing your responsibility from doing the job to ensuring that it gets done.


7 comments so far

  1. Jane Campbell on

    Love the dog photo!

    • Margaret Lukens on

      Jane, glad you like the dogs. Though they are clearly playing tug-of-war, it suggested to me the difficulty we sometimes experience in letting go of things we want to delegate.

  2. Sharon on

    I manage a small, growing, non-profit organization that relies on college students.

    While trying to follow-up to ensure the job is completed, I have been accused of “micro-managing”. From their viewpoint it’s “I’ll get around to it when I get around to it. I will study on the job and play on the computer, then I will go what you require when I feel like it.”

    When I give them a project, show them how I want it to look or explain the end result, and it still doesn’t happen after 3-4 times of “How are you doing on that project, it needs to be completed by X time” is that follow-up or micro-managing?

    One former employee tried to convene a Board of Directors tribunal because she perceived my efforts to get her to meet her deadlines (I was constantly finishing her jobs because she was spending her time talking to her boyfriend on company time or missing work – 15% absenteeism rate)as micro-managing rather than follow-up. She wanted to hang out and talk instead of being productive.

    Another employee walked out because he didn’t like the fact that he had to do more than one job function,wanted to play instead of what I asked, and accused me of micro-managing because I was constantly reminding him of professionalism and consistancy in his job responsibilities – especially in cash handling and facility security.

    Please define the difference in follow-up and micro-management.

    • Margaret Lukens on

      Sharon, thank you for your thoughtful question. I work on these problems with my private coaching clients in great detail. Let me share just a couple of ideas that you might choose to try.

      If you are relying on students, I’m guessing that your employees change frequently, so training is a constant feature of your job as a manager. But training is not the same thing as telling. So let’s focus on how you can make your efforts at follow-up more effective with your employees.

      Our mothers, fathers, and teachers may remind us repeatedly to do what we should (pick up your shoes! do your homework!) but our supervisors should not. Once a manager has delegated a responsibility, an adult employee should know what to do, and they don’t benefit from reminders of the deadline which they already agreed to. When you delegate, try agreeing to exact dates for following up as well. Something like, “we have to send this project to the printer in four weeks, so I’d like to check in with you this Friday and then again in two weeks for a status report. If you need anything from me in the meantime, please let me know.” When the times for interim status reports are agreed to in advance, the employees may feel less like the boss is looking over their shoulder or micro-managing their work.

      When the time comes for those check-in meetings, resist the urge to remind the employee of the deadline, the rules, or anything else. Speak to them as adults who are responsible for their own schedule. And here comes my hardest assignment for any manager: don’t TELL the employee anything at all. Just ask questions – lots of them. If they haven’t done anything, resist the urge to remind them of the deadline; remember, they already know it. Ask if they need any help from you. Allow them to experience the results of their efforts (or lack of efforts.) A five-minute meeting in which you do nothing but ask questions may be very challenging for you at first, but keep at it – it’s a skill worth perfecting!

      If the issue involves ongoing job responsibilities rather than a project with a deadline, again your job is to ask questions. So a conversation might begin with, “The back door was left unlocked two days ago. You understand the security problems that this causes. Tell me, is there anything we can do to insure this doesn’t happen again? What do you see in our procedures that needs to be improved to protect the security of our facilities?” Then listen, and expect that the employee will take responsibility for seeing that the job is done. Again, ask more questions.

      Asking questions and resisting the urge to issue reminders cannot guarantee that all projects will be done effectively and on time, but it will give the manager the greatest chance of drawing out the best that is in that employee, which should please everyone in the office.

      Please let me know if you find this helpful. I’ll be interested to hear what happens when you begin to use these strategies.

  3. Sharon on

    It’s very frustrating when a question is asked about a situation ex: “The building wasn’t secured last night, what happened?” and the consistent answer is “I forgot”.

    “I forgot” is the most common answer to any question asked. The ” I forgot” ‘s create extra work for others when there is a period of 4-5 days when the “I forgot” person is off work because of their schedules and the dealine falls during that period.

    “I forgot” to price the merchandise (2 hours of dead time that was spent on Facebook – on the clock). “I forgot” to show up at the staff meeting; “I forgot” to clock in or out: “I forgot” to call the volunteers to let them know the tour bus cancelled; “I forgot” to call volunteers for the school tour tomorrow; “I forgot” to call the volunteers to remind them of their schedules so someone is available for daily tours; “I forgot” to set up the tables and chairs for the wedding (this from a 12 month employee who covers events twice a month); “I forgot” to close out the register; “I forgot” to straighten the gift shop; “I forgot” to stock the soda machine, etc.

    We are a museum/tourist attraction and the majority of interactions are in a public situation. Deadlines for special events (we host weddings almost every weekend)and tours cannot be missed under any circumstance. Whenever they miss a deadline, I (as the only full time staff person) have to pick up the work, which puts me behind meeting my deadlines for my work (grants, advertising, reports, meetings).

    In an effort to empower the employees, I divided duties between them with deadlines so visitors would always walk into the best situation to set the tone for their visit. They “forget” these duties on a regular basis: too busy with Facebook, too busy texting, too worried about papers and tests, “just didn’t want to, didn’t feel like it”.

    I understand the “I forgot” during the training period and learning curve. I don’t understand the “I forgot” among + 12month employees. I tried explaining the “To Do” list concept and I get a blank look.

    Thanks for letting me vent. I’ve always worked in deadline oriented situations, where deadlines were never missed for any reason, and I don’t understand the current generational “I just didn’t feel like it” attitude – hence my constant “Don’t forget to clock in or out”, “Dont’ forget to call the volunteers”, “don’t forget to (fill in the blank”.

    • Margaret Lukens on

      Sharon, you’re very welcome for the chance to vent. I can certainly hear that this is a frustration that is deep and has persisted over a long time.

      I’d like to share two more thoughts, if you’ll allow me. More than once you have mentioned that you observe that work isn’t done because an employee is doing activities unrelated to work, such as checking in on facebook. What are your opportunities for instituting a rule about not engaging in non-work activities while on site? Do the employees come in with the expectation that they will be able to use paid time for personal activities? If so, who or what is creating that understanding? How can that can be addressed?

      And second, to address the “I forgot” phenomenon in experienced employees, have you used checklists as a step to enable the group to measure its own quality improvement results? A fascinating study using a simple 5-step checklist for doctors, developed at Johns Hopkins, has dramatically reduced hospital infections throughout the state of Michigan. Details are here:

      You wouldn’t think that doctors would need a checklist to remember to wash their hands, but this study showed that many do.

  4. Sharon on

    When a person is employed, they are provided an Employee Handbook that outlines specific expectations. There is a computer in the gift shop so we can access various documents needed to complete specific duties (lease agreements for rentals, volunteer contact information, etc.)

    I made the mistake of allowing the students to use the computer to work on assignments for school when they are covering an event, and if they have completed their duties (it can get very boring in the museum during the winter when there are few guests, I allowed them to work on school pprojects, as a perk, if everything else was done. – they took the priveledge and turned it around. The computer was removed last week, but that creates extra work for me because now I have to stop and retrieve documents they need. The computer will be returning next week – but without internet access.

    We have checklists for opening and closing. Each employee has been given a list with assigned duties. Each employee is trained on the procedure for handling event paperwork and checklists.

    They are good for awhile, I praise them for what they do right, thank them daily as they leave work, give them the opportunity for family time, etc.

    I try to approach various situations with “If you are a vistor to a museum or shop, or a bride, would you want to see (fill in the blank). Remember our jobs are about taking care of the guest and their perceptions – think about your job from the guest point of view.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. To me it’s common sense – but obviously not to others.

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