Stay out of the weeds

This article is the fourth in the series, Making Things Happen, where we are exploring the habits that help high-performing managers and exceptionally effective executives create unique momentum, advance their key metrics, and lead projects across the finish line again and again. In the last article, we considered critical questions for identifying and prioritizing unlocking work: those tasks that enable work, progress, and growth on your team.  

In this segment, our focus is on elevating your best work as a manager by avoiding micromanagement, actively discouraging learned helplessness scenarios, and fostering both ownership and excellence by staying out of the weeds. 

Your Best Work

In the early 1970s, McGill professor and researcher Henry Mintzberg defined managerial work as ten basic roles fit into three groupings: 

  • Interpersonal roles. These include standing as the symbolic figurehead of the organization or team, serving as a leader to their subordinates, and performing as a liaison, communicating laterally to other organizations or teams. 
  • Information processing roles. In these capacities, leaders work as nerve centers at the hub of information relevant to their teams, as the key disseminators of information to their teams, and as spokesmen responsible for communicating information to external stakeholders. 
  • Decision-making roles. Here, leaders work as the driving entrepreneurs pushing their units toward a future vision; the primary “disturbance handlers” responsible for dealing with urgent issues, problems, or emergencies; the resource allocator bringing strategy to fruition with the assets, supplies, time, and so on available; and negotiators in all sorts of internal and external scenarios.  

Though Mintzberg’s earlier research focused primarily on managers in executive roles, more recent investigations on the subject underscore the multi-role work of most managers now. In fact, Callum Hughson points to front-line supervisors as the “linchpin of organizational success,” responsible for translating strategy into activity in the most fundamental sense, building and leading teams, creating effective partnerships with other teams and leaders, communicating, coaching, and tending to the social and emotional aspects of their teams. 

If anything, modern managers at nearly every level of any organization fulfill many roles in addition to their administrative responsibilities, supervision, project work, teaching or training, and maintaining the organization’s culture.

Given the wide variety of managerial responsibilities leaders at all levels need to handle, it is crucially important they vigilantly maintain an operational focus. They must also avoid habits of perfectionism and micromanagement that can quickly overgrow a to-do list, taking over the much-needed time and focus required for effective leadership.

In the Weeds 

Jumping into the front lines here and there as a supervisor or manager can be a good thing. Rolling up your sleeves to get in on a front-line job on occasion can help keep your skills sharp and team morale strong. Spending some time directly observing work can help you stay aware of influences affecting your team’s key outcomes. Going on “ride alongs” can give you meaningful opportunities to provide on-the-spot feedback and training. 

However, spending too much time as a hovering presence can quickly turn into micromanagement. It swiftly erodes trust among you and your team members as they begin to wonder why you are watching them so closely or second-guessing them. Worse, getting too absorbed in controlling the minutiae of your team’s every task reduces your capacity for systems thinking and creates learned helplessness among your team instead of fostering critical thinking or empowerment. 

Most closely associated with the ebbs and flows of restaurant service, “In the weeds” refers to a work scenario that has become both unproductive and overwhelming, often as a result of a rush, distraction, or a persistent focus on the wrong details. When you’re in the weeds personally, you might be stressed, behind on your projects and to-do’s, and losing ground on the quality of your work.  When you’re leading from the weeds, you’re multiplying the negative effects and frustration across your team. 

The Hazards of Leading from the Weeds 

For leaders, micromanagement and perfectionism are two of the most weedy habits that can inhibit productivity and team performance. If left unchecked, micromanagement and over-the-top perfectionism ruin trust, degrade employee engagement, and severely limit the long-term success of a team. 

In their book, Own the Room; Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence (paid link) authors Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins explain that when a manager refuses to let go of her own need to take care of all the little details, she is actually signaling a lack of trust. For example, when a manager says “It’ll save time if I do it myself,” the implied message to employees is actually, “I don’t believe it’s worth my time to let you try. You won’t get it right anyway.” 

When employees learn that any decision they make will be second-guessed and that no completed project will ever be good enough, defensive routines begin taking over the team dynamic. “Defensive routines are patterns of interpersonal interactions people create to protect themselves from embarrassment and threat,” William Noonan writes. Over time, micromanagement inevitably leads to defensive routines. Employees begin checking in with the manager at every step, doubting their own work. They stop bothering to solve problems on their own. Worse, they avoid communication with the micromanager, and go so far as to hide problems or mistakes. 

Defensive routines can become a vicious cycle. Consider Joe’s story (his name has been changed): Joe, a self-avowed perfectionist, refuses to let go of the little details. His employees get tired of re-doing work to meet Joe’s impossible standards and of having Joe constantly picking at their work, so they go on the defensive. They start asking Joe to approve nearly every step of their projects, and start asking him to give instructions in writing for everything. Joe starts getting overwhelmed with the extra work, but presumes this means the team isn’t confident in their roles. He decides they must need more step-by-step guidance and stronger supervision. Joe starts double- and triple-checking things, and requiring that he be copied on outgoing messages to stakeholders. He starts spending more and more time haggling over tiny details, insisting they are key indicators of quality. The team quits making any effort at initiative or creativity, instead focusing their efforts on the same insignificant details and looking for ways to avoid Joe’s scrutiny. 

Joe and his team are in the weeds: they’ve lost sight of the meaningful goals of the work, are overwhelmed and unproductive, and spend far too much time and effort on the wrong priorities. They won’t be able to get out of the perfectionist/defensive trap unless Joe starts making very intentional changes to his habits of management. 

Getting Out of the Weeds 

If the weeds are taking over your time and team dynamic, consider the six approaches here as a means of resetting and moving your focus back to your best work. 

Don’t provide “takeover feedback.” When you see something that’s not quite up to par, avoid the temptation to jump in and re-do, or to provide line-by-line feedback spelling out “This is how I would have done it.” You don’t have to shy away from pointing out errors that do need correction, explains Caroline Vander Ark, but do be clear on expectations and provide feedback that outlines the level of quality the final product should attain. 

Provide guidance and directions, not instant answers. When one of your team members brings you a question or problem you would prefer they tackle themselves, avoid the temptation to give directive instructions or search up the answer yourself. Offer instead some advice on how to look up the information, search out the details, or consider next steps. Ask open-ended question to guide the problem-solving process: “What will you do first?” or “How can I best support you with this?”

Use occasional observations or spot-checks to encourage attention to detail. Don’t spend the time exhaustively reviewing everything your employees touch or digging through entire portfolios of work. Instead, create a positive habit of spot-checks and constructive critiques. Consider the level, volume, and complexity when determining how often you should spot check. For example, tasks that should happen frequently every day might merit weekly spot-checks (“I noticed you did a great job keeping your station clean even when we got busy.”), where longer, more complex projects might only need a monthly check-in (“I saw the draft presentation you posted in the team channel for next week, and…). 

Do less. According to J. Keith Murnighan, author of Do Nothing! Discover the Power of Hands-Off Leadership (paid link), when you transition in to a manager role, you need to spend more time organizing and facilitating work than staying in your comfort zone with the skills and projects that made you great as an individual contributor. Your best work involves stepping back from that sort of work to take a more comprehensive view of the work in your area of responsibility, make more strategic decisions, and lead more effectively. 

Stay flexible. If you insist on having everything your way, you close the door to a lot of action and initiative. As Steven Stein, PhD and Howard Book, MD explain in The EQ Edge; Emotional Intelligence and Your Success (paid link), a leader’s flexibility is often central to encouraging true innovation and creativity, allowing teams and organizations to pivot toward new opportunities or adapt to changing demands over time. 

Encouraging Excellence

Staying out of the weeds is not about tuning out and ignoring the little details.  On the contrary, active leadership is essential to advancing team performance, getting the best from each of your team members, and doing your best work as a manager. The skill for staying out of the weeds is keying in on the right details for awareness, tuning into and coaching quality in the fine details that create excellence, creating trust, and avoiding the trap of needing to do everything yourself. 

Image by maitematas from Pixabay

Tagged with: