Micro-Managers Anonymous -- Getting to Trust and Ownership

I want to start the leadership equivalent of a twelve-step program. At the first meeting, I want to be the first person to stand in front of my peers and announce, "My name is Niel Nickolaisen and I am a micro-manager." The goal of Micro-managers Anonymous will be to convince myself and others that micro-management is the bane of every organization on the face of the earth and that we, as leaders, need to purge our lives and our organizations of micro-management. Along with this, I want to explain the power that comes from leaders whose primary goal is to create an organizational environment of trust and ownership. The treatment for micro-management is trust and ownership.

One of the first steps in my career was as a project manager. As my experience and skills grew, so did the scale and scope of the projects I managed. My crowning project management achievement was the on-time, on-budget, on-scope delivery of a major information systems project. I managed a team of over 125 full-time people. Through my amazing project management capabilities, we delivered this project - through disruptions such as a CEO change and a major acquisition. At the close of the project, I felt at the top of my project management game. Even better, my amazing project results led to a promotion.

Within a month of completing the project, I was promoted to the role Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the company. From my new, lofty perch, I wanted to share my project management expertise with my new staff. In my spare time, I created a training program and guidebook that defined every step needed to ensure project success. I scheduled the training session and printed enough copies of the guidebook (70 pages of profundity) for anyone on my staff who was tangentially involved with managing projects. The night before the training session, I reviewed my masterpiece. I had, in just 70 pages, outlined the nearly minute-by-minute activities of a quality project manager.

During my review, a thought entered my head and the thought would not leave -- my expertise at project management had turned me into a project management micro-manager. I wanted everyone to do everything just the way I did things. I wanted to prescribe every action, every communication, every report.

With the little time I had left, I revised my guidebook and training content. I reduced 70 pages of micro-management to a half-page of project guidelines (for example, communicate to stakeholders frequently and if the project news is bad, the sooner the communication the better). The next day, we talked through the guidelines and how they might apply to their lives and projects. I then focused my attention on my recovery by becoming a leader who created a culture of trust and ownership.

What does it mean to create a culture of trust and ownership? At the highest level, it means that I, as a leader, describe what needs to be done and why it matters and then trust my teams to figure out how to make that happen. I do not tell them how to do anything - even if they ask. In my role as the master of What and Why, I never track or measure How - that belongs to the team and I trust them to figure it out. Should the team need help, I provide advice but avoid telling them how to do something or, worse, how I would do anything.

Best of all, this approach not only works but works amazingly well. The vast majority of people, if given ownership and trusted to deliver, will deliver.

When I speak in front of an audience about cultures of trust and ownership, I start by asking, "How many of you have ever worked for a micro-manager?" Every hand in the audience goes up. I then ask, "How many of you, and keep your hands up, enjoyed the micro-management experience and thought it resulted in your doing the best work of your career?" Not a hand has ever remained up.

Trust and ownership free everyone to do their best work. If you need some help to overcome your micro-management, please look for a chapter of Micro-managers Anonymous opening near you soon.

Niel Nickolaisen is the Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner -- the world leader in employee engagement through recognition. Niel is also the author of "The Agile Culture" (Addison Wesley, 2014) and "Stand Back and Deliver" (Addison Wesley, 2009). You can connect with Niel via LinkedIn.