Managing Your Inner Micromanager
How I’m Learning to Collaborate and Win as a Team
The Root of My Evils
For the past three years, I ran a moving & storage company in my college town. This management experience taught me to be a confident team leader and to always take responsibility when things went wrong.
Tied to this, though, was my learned tendency to micromanage because, after all, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Now, this saying is great when it means getting your hands dirty with that DIY backyard project. But, it can become a slippery slope, especially when the to-do list is too muddy for a single pair of gloves.
In my box-moving days, this often meant working upwards of 12 hour shifts because I would rather endure the permanent back damage than hire an employee to help and risk a “decrease in quality” (and allow me to remind you: my job was to move boxes…).
The toll wasn’t just on me, though. The worst part was the effect this mentality had on my employees — at least the times when I actually hired them.
My Undeserving Victims
With a hawk over your back watching your every move, it’s hard to do any work, much less enjoy it.
Mixing up my example pool, I uneasily think back to one group assignment I had in a college english class. My inner manager had taken over as I badgered my group mates of the approaching deadline that night. I hadn’t seen it as an annoyance, though, I was simply helping them stay on track (Jeopardy: what is every micromanagers catchphrase?). My snap out of this rationalization came when I received a private text from one of my group members. With charm, it read, “f*** off, I’ll get my work done faster without you checking in every hour.”
I was set aback, but not offended…because they were right. To this day, that text remains one of the most valuable teamwork and leadership lessons I’ve received. So, thank you to that person whose name I’ll never remember, but whose kind words of constructive feedback I’ll never forget.
My Latest Test
Two weeks ago, I received the brief for my bootcamp’s first group project. Along with it, the memory of those sweet and endearing words flashed before my eyes. I’m not kidding when I say I’ll never forget them.
Despite this trauma disguised as self-awareness, I was shaky on re-confronting the situation. Yes, I’d had my rude awakening, but that didn’t dismantle my comfort leading discussion. And, I still feel the knots in my back, but what’s that to say I won’t trade a bit of sleep to ensure everything’s “up to par” again? That sounds arrogant because it is.
I knew I had to avoid a relapse to my old ways.
I’ll admit the first week of the project sprint was not easy. I’ll admit my execution was nowhere near perfect. But, I was actively aware and actively trying, and in my mind, that was already a step forward.
Closing out that week, I journaled in the following midterm reflection:
“First week has been cool. It’s exciting to work with a group, but I’m definitely starting to see a lot of areas in which I need to grow as a professional and collaborator.
Not that this should justify anything, but it feels like three years of being “the boss” has made me really comfortable expressing my thoughts, the negative side being that I always think I’m right… Despite the fact that I’m able to come to terms with this, I have a long way to go in terms of checking myself, learning best practices for collaborating effectively, and learning how to accept creative differences.
I look forward to moving on to next week with this in mind and hopefully try to grow as much as I can so I’m enabling my team to produce, not hindering us when something doesn’t look exactly how I would’ve done it.”
The goal set there for the coming week was to “grow,” plain and simple. In spite of vogue, I avoided setting a SMART goal here. Something about telling myself I would “listen before speaking x times by the end of next week” quite frankly just sounded rather lousy. This had to be a fluid goal achieved through ongoing self-checks, not some habit I could fall back to once I hit my “decent team member quota.”
Why This Time Was Different
I crafted an action plan and monitored myself closely to make sure I followed through on its terms…and the results were shocking.
Here’s what worked for me:
1. In collaborative sessions, I did my best to hold off on giving input until after I had heard that of my teammates. This forced me to understand different design approaches and give them full merit before trying to impose my will on the solution.
2. Thanks to my instructional team at General Assembly, I learned to be much more calculated and thoughtful in my critiquing. Rather than shoot down ideas that differed from my own, my goal was to elevate the ideas of others by challenging them to defend those decisions. The difference is subtle, but the outcome is not: criticism tells others that what they did is wrong, without giving much in the way of why or how to improve; effective critiquing, on the other hand, empowers others to run with the ideas they have, while pushing them to consider viewpoints they may have prior overlooked. If you want a great example of what that looks like, check out this Tim Gunn masterclass and be ready to take notes.
3. Recognizing others’ strengths and giving them the creative freedom to shine. This one may be obvious for most, but is an area I have to grow in. To make it work for me, I restricted myself to offering feedback only when it was requested of me. Otherwise, I pushed myself to trust my teammates and their talents. I’ll repeat that for the people in the back: I know how talented my teammates are (and believe I always have) — the issue had always been not pausing myself to consider whether my input or oversight was needed at any particular time.
What I Learned
Summing up, that second week flowed much smoother.
What’s more, the date the project was due, I didn’t feel burnt out like I did in my one-man-band box-moving days. Instead, I felt confident in my domain of the product and confident of my teammates in theirs.
Most of all, the finished result was infinitely better than anything a) I could have done myself, or b) that would have come from me meddling in each part of the process.
As I look forward, I know I still have a ways to go in becoming a better teammate and collaborator. That said, I’m dedicated to continue working at this skill and know that sometimes, all I really need to do is sit back, trust my colleagues, and “f*** off.”