Tension Between Micromanagement and Accountability

In several of my recent team building and leadership development programs, I’ve noticed a tension between accountability and micromanagement.

On one hand the leader believes he is holding his team members accountable, and on the other hand team members see the leader as micromanaging.

It’s a common situation during periods of rapid change. Sometimes it’s a new manager taking responsibility for a team or department. Other times it’s a process change driven by the business. In some cases it’s the pressure to meet quarterly expectations.

The challenge is that when the leader thinks he’s adding accountability and team members see him as micromanaging, derailing behaviors often result. The compliant, or not committed, team member often gossips about the leader to coworkers, goes around the leader’s back to his superior a few levels up, or simply fails to do what she nodded about in their team meeting. On the other hand, the leader can become overly dictatorial and arrogant, fail to ask for team member input, or withhold information to retain control.

It can get ugly…quickly.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

How do you overcome this situation?

The Leader

First, let’s take a look at the definition of accountability. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s action. In the context of the workplace that might mean delivering a project or task based on a previously agreed upon timeframe and scope. The accountable person takes ownership for the responsibility and the impact and consequences of meeting or not meeting expectations.

So, the challenge is – how can a leader instill a sense of accountability without being seen as micromanaging? The answer lies within these five “Cs.”

  • Credibility – It’s very difficult to get anything done as a leader if you aren’t seen as credible. Credibility comes from walking the talk and leading by example. It doesn’t come with title. Until you go the extra mile for your people, they won’t go the extra mile for you. Trying to instill accountability without credibility just won’t work.
  • Communicate the urgency – A leader has to make the case for change. They need a compelling vision that people understand, relate to, and become part of. And, communicating the urgency at an All-staff meeting isn’t enough. It has to be woven throughout daily actions.
  • Collaboration – People tend to be committed when they know that their contributions matter. Involvement and acknowledgement are key. Leaders can begin by asking good questions and considering the input. Questions like: What are your recommendations? What challenges do you see? What is the impact of those challenges? What support do you need from me?
  • Clear agreements – This is the foundation of accountability, and agreements are not clear until they are spoken and then confirmed. Leaders often package their communications unassertively, leaving team members with too many assumptions to make. Talk about what you know; talk about what you don’t know; confirm the expectation.
  • Courage – Stepping in to provide feedback along the way is one of the hardest things for leaders to do. And, when they don’t provide feedback, team members often seek feedback from alternative sources. Leaders must have the courage to address issues directly and in a timely manner.

But leader beware. Here are some symptoms you might see in yourself if you are failing to instill a sense of accountability appropriately.

  • Asking for input simply to gain buy-in instead of actually valuing what people have to say. Team members will see right through this mistake.
  • Driving solutions before conducting the appropriate level of analysis.
  • Avoiding difficult conversations when issues are small, resulting in larger issues with greater implications later on.

The Team Member

First, let’s take a look at the definition of micromanagement. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, micromanagement is managing with excessive control or attention to details. In the context of the workplace that might mean controlling aspects of a project or task for which other people should be responsible.

So the challenge is – how can a team member embrace, instead of resist, accountability?  The answer flies within these three “Fs.”

  • Focus on the business – The team member has to start by shifting the focus from himself to that of the business. The focus can’t be about her individual ego and agenda but instead about the higher-level organizational need. A question everyone can ask is: what is the right decision for the business?
  • Flexibility – Change is often an opportunity to improve, learn new skills, and invigorate the way of doing things. But, people have to be flexible and agile enough to see this. At the end of the day, the way that people respond to new levels of accountability is an individual choice.
  • Framing communication – A team member’s role is not to simply comply. It is, in part,  to contribute ideas, challenge the process, and support others. But as team members do that, their skill in communicating up will directly impact how they are perceived and how well their message is received. Team members can frame their communication to the needs of their manager by understanding their manager’s communication style and preferences, the pressures he or she may have in their role, and then tailoring what is said and how it is said.

But team member beware. Here are some symptoms you might see in yourself if you are resistant to accountability.

  • Holding on to the way things used to be
  • Demonstrating a lack of solutions-based discussion
  • Holding back ideas in order to derail the process later
  • Disrespectful behavior or even an outright lack of respect and professionalism for others

Micromanagement and accountability are often confused in the workplace based on the lens through which we see a situation. In the end we each have to be accountable for how accountability is rolled out.