The Art of NOT Micro-Managing.

Nobody likes a micromanaging boss.

If you have ever worked for a boss who line-edits your written communications for you, you know.


If you are the leader of a business team, I feel for you. Taking a completely laissez-faire approach about the endeavors of your team members doesn’t serve them - and it will likely keep you anxious and wondering. You will quickly become the leader who isn’t actually leading.

What is a helpful rhythm for engaging with your team? Especially if some of your team members are less seasoned than you would like, and you perhaps don’t entirely trust their ability to tackle a complex challenge. How do you set them up for success without abandoning them?

I hire professional staff and then micromanage them until they walk out the door."


A 2021 article in Harvard Business Review - How to Help (Without Micromanaging) by Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer (HBR January/February 2021) – got me thinking about this perennial dilemma. The authors hail from University College London’s School of Management, Harvard Business School and NYU’s Stern School of Business. They have spent the last 10 years studying how effective leaders offer help without micromanaging.

Their research suggests 3 specific strategies will help you to be a hands-on boss who doesn’t micromanage:

  • Time your help so it comes when people are READY for it.
  • Clarify that your role is to be a helper.
  • Align the rhythm of your involvement – its intensity and frequency – with people’s specific needs.

Reads nicely, right? In my experience as an Executive Coach, this is not as easy as it sounds. Helping well requires situational astuteness and finesse. And the ability to slip in and out of different ways of inhabiting your leadership role.

How To Operationalize Being Helpful

1. Make HELPING Part of the Lingo

Talk about the notion of helping others to be successful. Make it explicit. Explain that help comes in many forms and moves in many different directions. Demonstrate that you are not a know-it-all boss or the smartest person in the room. Talk about how you receive help – from your own boss, from a coach or an advisory team. Show how asking for help and receiving help are not a sign of weakness.

Approach your team members for help when they may be able to do so. Live the famous Steve Jobs quote: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. These are all ways in which you create a culture of help where you helping your team is just that – HELP, not micromanagement.

2. Be in Relationship More Frequently

Think of venturing beyond the traditional “standing 1:1 meeting” with a member of your team. You run the danger of having a predictable if unexciting work cadence with this team member - and then you suddenly swoop in and hover in the midst of a perceived crisis. Anxiety levels rise, as do the possibilities for micromanagement.

Most of the executives I support opt for a different engagement style with their team members. More frequent short calls. Impromptu, unscheduled. Texting. Just to say hi. The chat can be about work or personal matters. 10 minutes or less. The intent is not to check up on your team member. No, you choose to stay in relationship. The relationship is informal and unforced. Needs for help and support have a forum to easily emerge. They have a place where they can come forth in a timely manner.

3. Do NOT Help Preemptively

You mean well. Your team is about to embark on a critical project, and you want them to be prepared for everything that might derail things. You gather for a meeting, and you “lay it all on them” in this meeting. Cover all potential scenarios. You let the team know what you have done in the past when “things went wrong." You shower your team members with tips and advice. You’re proud of how pro-active you are.

You think you’re helping. Please note: You’re helping when no help is needed yet. You have created alarm when no alarm has sounded yet. You’re micromanaging before any of this micromanagement is possibly warranted. Thinking of potential challenges can be helpful, of course. Let your team drive this conversation, not you. Otherwise, it is more likely a case of your Ego running amok. Stop.

4. Contract Your HELP with your Team Member

If you notice that in the midst of a project one or several team members are struggling, resist the urge to swoop in and take over. Consider a more collaborative approach. Tell your team members what you observe and brainstorm possible ways of addressing a challenge or bottleneck. Make it a “together” conversation.

If you have an idea for getting involved in a hands-on way, propose it. Be clear about the depth of the involvement you propose and the length of it. Test to see if the idea of your help resonates. Chances are, your team members will feel a bit of inner pressure to accept your help. Understood. When they do, however, you have established explicit boundaries for your help. You have consciously contracted. And you have not become the jerk-boss who took over because, well, you could.

The urge to help is primal, universal, timeless. It’s a wonderful urge. Honor it. But please get your Ego out of the way. Be clear that, at times, helping might mean allowing the other person to learn from making a mistake. At other times, it might require some in-the-moment coaching. Or sending a team member to a training class. Hovering is not help. Constant correction is not helping.

Go and help well. If you have any inclinations toward micromanaging, notice how much more enjoyable it is for you to lead without doing so. Notice what a relief it actually is. And how much more appreciated your leadership is.

Be relieved. And manage your urge.

*Image by storyset on Freepik

WHY Don’t You Appreciate Them MORE?

Appreciation, Voltaire wrote, is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

Beautiful sentiment.

A no-brainer, right? Yet almost every individual I have coached over the last two decades doesn’t appreciate the contributions of others enough.

Well, let me clarify. They don’t EXPRESS their appreciation enough.

This lack of appreciation-expression is most startling when it comes to how we relate to an authority figure. All sorts of conditioning, explicit or subliminal, about how we behave around folks with power comes into play.

It’s not pretty.

Chances are, you have been taught about “managing UP.” The art of managing a perhaps mercurial, distracted, at times unavailable and often unpredictable boss. If you have worked in the corporate world long enough, you have likely taken a class on this essential leadership skill.

Hint: Know their priorities. Speak their language. Anticipate their needs. Be truthful and don’t BS them. Contract properly at the end of a meeting. Just a few of the essentials.

Chances are, as well, that no one in your class spoke about “appreciating UP.”

You do your best to express appreciation to the folks on your team. You may forget and you may not do it perfectly, but you know that it’s a good idea.

You do, however, little to explicitly appreciate your boss. It’s a potent influencing behavior, and yet, bosses rarely receive a word of praise or appreciation. From anyone. Yes, it’s lonely at the top, in more ways than one.

Here are some of the myths and beliefs that shape how we engage with an authority figure.

3 Boss Appreciation Myths

1. I don’t want to waste their time.

My boss’s time is precious. I want to be prepared, get to the point, and show that I respect how busy s/he is.

Fact: Your boss is a human being with feelings, no matter how efficient her or his outer demeanor may be. The longing for appreciation is universal. Expressing appreciation is never a waste of time. Do not conflate being efficient with not expressing an important thought or feeling – which includes appreciation.

 2. I don’t want to sound like I’m sucking UP.

I’ve watched other people suck up to Senior Leaders and it just looks and sounds so totally obvious. I don’t ever want to become one of THOSE people!

Fact: Even when it looks like sucking up to you, chances are your boss appreciates hearing it. Dump the phrase “sucking up” and supplement it with the phrase “expressing genuine appreciation.” That’s what we’re talking about, after all. If your appreciation is heartfelt, your expression of this appreciation is an act of honest communication. Withholding the comment is an act over unnecessary filtering. You are choosing to be less authentic by not communicating an appreciative thought.

3. My boss is uncomfortable with personal chit-chat.

I don’t want to cross any personal boundaries with my boss or get into a conversation that becomes too private and which I will later regret. My boss isn’t a touchy-feely person.

Fact: Praising someone’s idea, expertise, or accomplishment is as safe as a professional conversation gets. It’s entirely about work. Your story about not getting too personal is likely about your discomfort in offering a personal remark to someone with high position power, not about that person’s discomfort in receiving such a remark from you.

I’m a big fan of Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s consistently inspiring “On Being” radio program. I vividly remember a chat she had with another hero of mine, renowned British poet and organizational advisor David Whyte, about leadership wisdom (Tippett, On Being, 4/7/2016). “Being a leader,” Whyte affirmed to Krist Tippett, “means being visible, all the time. It means truly showing up and not simply going through the motions of showing up.”

Being visible, fully showing up, includes noticing our appreciative thoughts AND having the courage to express them. To anyone. It also suggests we appreciate UP, discomfort and all.

If someone who reports to you offers a compliment or thanks you for something well done, you appreciate it, don’t you? You remember the comment, right?

Act in kind. Express your appreciation, in every direction. That includes UP.