Being 'Hands-On' versus Micro-Managing (how not to be a control freak with your staff!)

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The Difference Between Being ‘Hands On’ and Micro-Managing

I was asked this by a client yesterday,

How do we be supportive and hands-on with staff, without going to the extreme of micro-managing?

This had been a topic of a management meeting and they team hadn’t reached a resolution on the ‘how to’ part of it.

Of course, we all know what it’s like to have a micro-managing manager (or a micro-managing parent or partner).

It can feel like we’re being judged unfavourably, like there’s an (unfair) assumption that we don’t know how to do our job, like there’s an over- (and unhelpful) vigilance in the scrutiny our work and ourselves are being given.

It’s kinda sucks.

I threw the question back at him, and asked him what he would do and whether he knows the difference. He does, of course; he’s a thoughtful and self-aware manager who is looking to do the best he can for his team.

As we closed the call, I summed up the two main pieces that I see in this, the insights that will help with the ‘how-to’. Maybe you can relate?

1. Trust That You Will Know When You Know

When we’re worried that we might slip into a behaviour we want to avoid, we have a tendency to be over-vigilant (of ourselves, which can then show up as over-vigilance of someone else).

The discussion we’d had about staff reminded me of something I’d been aware of when diving into my gym programme this year.

There are some things which are just true:

I want to exercise but I don’t want to injure myself; I’m doing some new things, and I’m adding weights for the first time. I have a history of running injuries (which sometimes makes me overly aware of the potential for injury); I’m getting older (which sometimes I make mean that I’m more likely to have an injury—not actually true!).

All of those things together, and the past injuries that haunt me still, makes me want to avoid becoming injured again.

I also know that injuries happen and while I can take care, becoming too aware, and being what I’ve called ‘over-vigilant’ is a danger in itself. It will keep me stiff, and potentially more prone to injury, and it will definitely reduce the enjoyment I get from not thinking about exercise, just doing it.

I don’t want to tread carefully and hover at the edge of an exercise programme, I want to throw myself in, to do as much (or as little) as I want, and to enjoy what I’m doing.

I know that they way to achieve this is to trust that I’ll know when too much is too much. I don’t need to do anything.

And this is what happens. I notice when my calves start to twinge a little; when they seem to need extra stretching and maybe a day or two off. I noticed the freshness I felt after a two week holiday and it reminded me to build in more rest.

I’m not consciously doing anything, or avoiding anything, I’m simply aware of new sensations and I’m experienced enough to understand what they mean and pivot my programme accordingly.


…until I notice the next thing, and I pivot again. I don’t need to plan for it because I trust that I’ll know what to change when it’s time to change. I’m not attached to knowing in advance—every day is an evolution and an adventure.

It’s the same for my client.

We talked about how to support a new member of staff with his orientation. Because my client could see that he’ll know when he knows, all he has to do is show up, to make a start and then to adjust as they go. He’ll know when he’s not giving enough support, and when he’s giving too much and slipping towards over-bearing.

And this is isn’t a solo-sport—it’s a perfect topic for them to discuss,

How can I support you? Last time we did X and it worked out like this. Should we try Y approach.

2. See That We’re Always OK

This isn’t a doing so much as a place to come from. I don’t tend to get so involved in people’s choices because I can see that they’re fine either way.

When my youngest son was choosing his university and his subject, all I wanted was for it to be something he wanted to do and to feel like a fit for him—again, a kind of ‘we’ll know it when we see it’.

I also knew that he’d be fine whatever he did. He’d be fine if he wanted to drop out and he’d be fine if he made a ‘mistake’ (what does that even mean anyway!)

He’s just started a year in Denmark and he’s having a few adjustment challenges. I’m sure he’ll figure it out but if he decides it really isn’t for him and he wants to come home that’s fine too.

I don’t see any choice as ‘forever’. There is no ‘getting it right’ because no-one I know can actually see into the future. Sure, we have expectations but those expectations come, ultimately, from partial experience in the present (and past) and an imagined experience of the future—the key word here being imagined.

In the exercise example, I don’t need to be over-vigilant because I know that I’ll be fine injury or no injury. I’ll figure it out, I’ll take a break, I’ll start swimming. Who knows what I’ll do but I’ll be fine because the nature of life is that we take a few knocks and we carry on. The purpose of life isn’t to get through it unscathed—that’s impossible!

Just as in the staffing example my client may well leave his new member of staff unsupported on occasions, or lean in too much to the detail, and he’ll only realise after the fact.

Oh well!

It’s easy to say,

You know what, I can see that I was too instructive with that task and you were perfectly capable of doing it without me. I’m sorry if I came over as controlling, it really wasn’t my intention.

The kids do this to me all the time,

Mum, you’re being X, Y, Z!

Yeah, you know what, I am, and I’m sorry, my bad!

No one needs as much protection as we think they do. Especially ourselves.

It isn’t the end of the world if we don’t always come over as the perfect manager / parent / partner, etc. (it might feel like the end of the world at the time but feelings return to equilibrium if we don’t fuss over them too much.)

Micro-managing is often a symptom of worrying that the other person is not OK or that there’s something in our imagined future that isn’t OK, that there’s a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ and that one is good and one is to be avoided at all cost.

We’ll be OK because we have a fundamental capability to adapt and take new action when the situation demands—like a weighted russian doll or a vintage roly-poly toy that can’t be knocked over. We will get more out of life (and those around us) when we understand that we too have that in-built mechanism for returning to balance. It’s the ultimate superpower and, therefore, we need never fear a little knock here and there.

And knowing that, truly knowing it deep within our bones, is what will save us from feeling like we need to micro-manage any-one or any-thing ever again.

Enjoy the freedom and have fun having fun!

With love,