The Most Common Leadership Pitfall

Having the freedom to make our own decisions is one of our most fundamental human needs. It’s like oxygen for the soul. The desire to exercise our agency becomes acutely evident in toddlers as soon as they learn to say the word “no”. It is such a fundamental human need that restricting a person’s ability to control their life (imprisonment) is the most widely used form of punishment imposed throughout history.

Is it any wonder then, that when it comes to the things people dislike the most about their boss, micromanagement tops the list? I recently reviewed close to 50 social media posts, books, and academic articles each presenting their own list of worst leadership dysfunctions in search of the most important leadership habits to ditch. Micromanagement was the most commonly cited theme.

The irony of this repressive leadership trait is that we all hate being micromanaged, and yet we all do it to others when we have the opportunity! It’s only a matter of degree and frequency. If you don’t think you are a micromanager, just ask your kids. In fact, the tips that I am about to give you to help improve your influence with those you lead are just as applicable at home as they are at the office.

Over-managing stems from a manager’s responsibility to maintain control, which is a good thing. We need our managers to maintain structure and order. However, most people never learn that the more control we exert over others, the less they want to do what we want them to. And when people feel forced to do something, even something they might otherwise willingly do, they will almost always do it begrudgingly, and far less effectively.

Managers must learn that there is a cost to trying to control people. Here are a few tips to help managers make sure they are managing the right things.

How to increase follower commitment without giving up control

Tip #1.  We generally have a very difficult time making the distinction between the results we want and the methods used to get them. The next time you ask someone to do something, be very clear about the results you are after, and give them the freedom to choose the methods.

Tip #2.  Resist the urge to tinker with other people’s ideas or work. Managers often feel the need to add their two-cents to any idea or work their subordinates produce. But there are times when it isn’t worth it. Leadership author Marshall Goldsmith explains why in this great quote: “You may have improved the content of my idea by 5%, but you’ve reduced my commitment to executing it by 50%”

Tip #3.  Clearly define what decisions must be discussed with you first, and what decisions your subordinate is free to make without “running it by” you. Give examples, as best you can, of the types of decisions that could have far-reaching effects, which must be made by the person who bears ultimate responsibility for the consequences. Also give examples, as best you can, of the types of decisions your subordinates may make on their own. Write these guidelines down so neither of you forget them.

Tip #4.  Try presenting assignments as problems. Instead of always making assignments, try defining the problem and asking your subordinate what they can do to help. You may not even have a chance to ask for their help before they offer it. Doing this not only validates their worth, but it makes the assignment their idea, and will multiply their commitment to carry it out.

Believe me, we all have room to improve our leadership skills. But really, it’s as simple as learning the behaviours that will produce the most impact, and then applying some of them.


Download the FREE Leadership Blind Spots Self-Evaluation for a list of specific behaviours associated with micromanagement, and 17 other common leadership dysfunctions.

6 Responses

  1. Going back to tip number 1, what would you suggest if I give this person the freedom to choose how to get to the end goal, but they continually miss the mark, or only half make it there?

    1. Mackinlay, good question. The tips I gave in this article are designed to increase follower commitment. While they should produce better results, even committed people miss the mark from time to time. That then becomes a typical performance management problem. You’d then need to review with that person how well their methods worked.
      1. Highlight the positive results but don’t sugar-coat the shortcomings.
      2. Ask the person what they think they should do to close the gap.
      3. Then, if you don’t think their suggestion will work, ask them to try the method you suggest.

      This doesn’t have to take more than 5 minutes but will pay off big time in the amount of energy and enthusiasm people expend trying to achieve the results.

  2. These are the basic core elements of how to influence human beings by an attractive nature instead of one that repels. Humans want to be treated with honor and respect. I love this article.

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