A question a lot of business leaders I work with ask me is “When is it Ok for me to just tell my team what needs to be done?” There is a genuine fear in today’s business circles of being labelled a micromanager. The term has become infused with fear and anxiety. Being labelled a leader who micromanages others has been seen as the very worst kind of leadership. In many cases rightly so – micromanagers aim to tightly control and restrict their team’s creativity and stifle their input. However, this does not automatically mean that all forms of directive leadership are micromanagement. Or that direction in itself is not a needed leadership discipline in the right space at the right time.
What has this got to do with Lego you might ask? Well, this weekend I was building the London Lego scene you see in the picture and a fun time I had doing it! Whilst I was happily creating the kit I was reflecting on how the designers at Lego empower us, the people who buy the kits, to create the final product to such an exacting standard.
When I opened the box I was faced with approx 2,000 tiny bits of plastic. And most importantly a guidebook. When I opened the book I was given step-by-step easy to follow guidelines of exactly what I needed to put, in what order and where it needs to go. I was directed to use specific pieces in a specific order. There is no empowerment happening – I was not free to choose the order or the bits I want to use.
Thinking back over my experience as I built the kit I at no point felt like I was not being given the freedom to express myself. In fact, I was happy to follow the steps, knowing with confidence they would help me to build the kit and that it would end up looking like the picture on the box.
When Does Directive Leadership Work?
There are some specific conditions that meant this approach was appropriate and didn’t leave me feeling disempowered.
- The outcome was very specific and there really was only 1 way to create the outcome
- I had little knowledge and experience and could NOT have done it without guidance
- It is a one-off project – I don’t need to learn how
- The instructions are so clear and simple that it made more sense to follow them than to try and work things out on my own
When it comes to leading our businesses there will be times when the ‘Lego’ approach can work really well. Where being very prescriptive about what to do and how to do it can offer real value to the teams we lead. Namely, directive leadership is suitable when:
- You know exactly what is required to reach an outcome
- You have clear, defined parameters that are not open to discussion (e.g. rules or procedures that MUST be followed)
- You are supporting someone with lower skill levels who are doing a task for the first time
- There is a time constraint or a crisis that needs immediate focus
- The task is a ‘one off’ and therefore the benefit gained from learning HOW has little or no future value
In every business, there will be situations that meet these criteria. In these times we should willingly step up and demonstrate our leadership by directing the team members.
When Micromanagement Happens
However, the problem arises when Leaders use this approach for every situation. When Leaders demand that every decision or action MUST be completed by a very specific set of instructions. When there is little or no room for alternative voices, opinions or approaches, Micromanagement becomes an issue. In this instance, it becomes disempowering and causes frustration, a lack of initiative and low engagement.