Often, when we think of having autonomy at work, we frame it against being micromanaged. Today I want to dig in a bit about why that is, and how we can go beyond “don’t micromanage” and into more compelling ways of providing autonomy to our teams.
When we feel micromanaged, we usually feel like our autonomy is being limited in an unnecessary or unproductive way. We feel like we aren’t trusted to handle the fundamentals of whatever it is we’re doing, and that lack of trust feels unfair. We feel instinctively that it’s bad because several of our core needs at work, as defined by trainer, speaker, and equity and inclusion expert Paloma Medina, are threatened: we lack choice, improvement is difficult, our significance feels diminished, and the dynamic feels unequal. It’s so impactful that it’s often quite clear to the person being micromanaged that that’s what’s happening.
It can be a lot harder to identify micromanaging behavior when you’re the one doing it. For a deep dive into how to recognize and avoid your own micromanaging behavior, I recommend checking out the resources the team at The Management Center has shared on how to avoid micromanaging and on developing the skill of delegation generally. Pay close attention to those delegation resources: developing effective delegation skills is the best defense against accidental micromanagement.
But you don’t have to stop there! Effective delegation is the right foundation to build on; from there, you can build up more challenging, interesting ways to establish autonomy for your team without sacrificing the effectiveness that you’re accountable for as the manager or the support your team needs from you.
Understand your team members’ key questions.
The best balance of autonomy, support, and effectiveness leaves a team member feeling like they have control over the areas they’re best at, and clear guidance in the places where they need it most. That’s different for every person and every project, so when you set out to create that balance as a manager, it’s important to start by understanding your team members’ working styles. I like to use the framework Carson Tate puts forth in her book Work Simply, in which she describes productivity styles partly in terms of what questions you tend gravitate toward without prompting, and which questions you have to be consciously reminded to pay attention to.
In Tate’s framework, I’m a Prioritizer/Planner, which means questions that start with “What” and “How” are naturally going to be at the front of my mind at any new project. It also means that I have to consciously remind myself to pay attention to questions that start with “Why” (a key question for Visualizers) and “Who” (a key question for Arrangers), or I’ll present a variety of risks to the success of the project: difficulty collaborating with my colleagues who have other productivity styles; outcomes that miss the mark for key stakeholders; or elegantly crafted solutions that don’t get at the ultimate desired goal.
Because I gravitate toward “what” and “how” questions, as an employee, I tend to feel motivated when given autonomy in answering those questions, not just because I see those as my own strengths, but also because I default to seeing those answers as important to the success of a project. (Who and Why questions are important too! It’s just that I need more active reminders about them.) In Medina’s BICEPS terms, if I sense that my manager trusts me to answer my key questions, it feeds both my Choice and Significance core needs at work.
For a senior-level employee who already has lots of autonomy in the area of their key questions, the next step is to help them frame their work against the key questions of others on your team, on the board, or in leadership. This can be tough emotionally: when you have answered your key questions deeply and thoroughly, interrogating the work from another angle can feel like a challenge to your expertise. Letting go of that defensive feeling and allowing yourself to ask those other questions opens up all kinds of possibilities for effective collaboration, and if you can enable that effective collaboration as a manager, you’ll be doing your most valuable work.