How to help rather than micromanage

Leaders need to think of helping as a major part of their job and clearly communicate that to their subordinates

For many people micromanaging is a dirty word – most forward-thinking leaders look for ways to offer their employees autonomy and opportunities for self-management.

However, autonomy doesn’t mean leaders should simply leave their subordinates alone. Many of the trickiest problems at work require quite a lot of help and support from leaders.This is especially true for organisations that do complex, knowledge-intensive work (where there is no right answer or clear path forward) and for organisations that are flatter and less bureaucratic.

Over the past nine years I’ve been studying the dynamics of helping in organisations, together with my colleagues Julianna Pillemer (The Wharton School) and Teresa Amabile (Harvard Business School). In a multi-year study of a major design consultancy, which we’ll call GlowDesign, we found that leaders often spent hours or even days assisting employees with tricky, persistent problems. We call this kind of leader behaviour 'deep help'.

We found two patterns by which leaders provided deep help. First, when employees faced important transitions from one problem to another leaders would serve as 'guides'; helping in a series of long, tightly-clustered meetings. Second, when subordinates had more persistent problems, leaders served as 'path-clearers' by stopping by briefly but more frequently to try to create time for subordinates—even when that involved menial tasks like ordering lunch for them.

These behaviours seemed to run counter to the ideal of empowering employees to manage themselves. How did these leaders avoid being seen as micromanagers when providing deep help? We found several keys. First, leaders at GlowDesign were careful to frame their role as soon as they could. In other words they made it clear that they were there to help – not to judge or takeover. Second, these leaders made sure that they allocated enough time to understand issues from their subordinates’ perspectives. Rather than coming in and pointing out what needed to be done they asked questions and listened, or they made general offers to help, but waited for their subordinates to ask for it.

We also observed some instances in which leaders tried to give deep help but ended up undermining the employee’s sense of autonomy and ultimately disrupting their work more than helping. When leaders didn’t frame their role subordinates often felt like they had no choice but to accept all of a leader’s suggestions and felt that a leader spending so much time with them was a vote of no confidence in their own abilities. We call these instances 'takeovers', which employees found threatening and unhelpful. When leaders were in a hurry they often only had time to identify problems, but not to figure out how to fix them. GlowDesign workers derisively referred to such instances as 'swoop and poops': where leaders quickly swooped in and would 'poop' on the hard work of their subordinates. This was usually not done out of malice, but from lack of time.

To enable leaders to give effective deep help, organisations need to provide enough time in leaders’ schedules to help their employees. The biggest challenge, however, may be changing people’s attitudes about help and leader involvement. As work gets more complex and people’s job descriptions more ambiguous help will become more necessary than ever. Leaders need to think of helping as a major part of their job and clearly communicate that to their subordinates.This should allow deep help to become a bigger part of leaders’ toolkits in managing in today’s business environment.

Colin Fisher is assistant professor of organisations and innovation at University College London (UCL) School of Management