Every leader knows that they shouldn’t micromanage — even if some of us still do . But while we understand the downsides of micromanaging and taken action to avoid it, we still haven’t sufficiently embraced the upsides of not micromanaging.
The main upside is that leaders have more time to spend on what we call macromanagement. Although there are different definitions of this term floating around, when I talk with executives, I use it to mean managing the big issues rather than the small ones. Time and effort spent on macromanagement enables leaders to be as clear, decisive, and disciplined at the macro level — on the big strategic questions the organization is facing — as their managers are at the micro level, i.e., about how these decisions might be implemented.
So, what are these big strategic questions that leaders aren’t spending enough time on or aren’t answering in a sufficiently clear or disciplined way? They are questions about:
why the organization exists and what its purpose is what it offers (and does not offer) its customers, and how and why this offer delivers value to these customers what this produces for the business and for shareholders — the critical outcome metrics by which the organization will be judged how the people within the organization will behave — toward customers, other stakeholders, and each other
I don’t know many leaders who would say they don’t think these questions are important. But I know lots of leaders who don’t spend enough time answering them, and even more who don’t answer them with sufficient clarity so their people can then get on with delivering the answers.
Lack of Time Isn’t the Only Reason Leaders Ignore These Questions
A lack of time, too many so-called “priorities,” and the gnawing presence of the urgent masquerading as the important are usually quoted as the main reasons why leaders’ answers to these macro questions aren’t clear enough.
But I suspect an even more fundamental reason is at play here. For the past 30 years, the literature on leadership and empowerment has advised leaders not to be too prescriptive about these questions, lest they undermine employee empowerment. We have been told that participative leadership, rather than prescriptive leadership, is what we should aim for; that organizations should be agile, with “change the only constant”; and that empowerment is critical for employee satisfaction and long-term value.
I agree with the third point: Empowerment is critical. But, as my own research shows, in order to be meaningful, empowerment requires some boundaries, some rules that have been decided on within which empowerment can be exercised. Ironically, in order to truly empower employees, leaders need to be prescriptive, at least about certain things. And these things are precisely the macro questions of why the organization exists, what it will deliver, and how it will behave.
If leaders aren’t providing clarity and certainty about these critical macro questions, then the best, most motivated employees flail in their so-called freedom because they can’t be sure they are doing what leaders want or are using their time and resources in the best way possible. And because they want to do that, they find this lack of prescription stressful — and a huge constraint on them acting in an empowered way. Equally, the less keen and the less motivated on the payroll take this lack of prescription by leaders as license to do what they want (and perhaps what they were already doing), which, of course, may be diametrically opposed to what the leaders had in mind.