my employees are making mistakes, but I don’t want to micromanage

A reader writes:

I have two direct reports with two very different working styles.

One is more independent and usually runs with the project — she asks me for help or advice if something comes up. When she shares various projects with me, there are usually a couple of minor items that need correcting, which I share with her for next time. The next time she shows me a project, I see the same items that need correcting. I started to wonder if it was my communication style, so I also shared the corrections via email so it’s in writing. But the same thing happens again, regardless if I talked to her about it or wrote it down.

My second direct report needs a little more hand holding so there is constant communication. There are two extremes to his working style — he either gets wrapped up in the details and forgets the project objective so I need to bring him back on track or he rushes to finish the project, but neglects the details so there are multiple revisions and drafts. As with my other employee, I have communicated the project details and objectives verbally and also through email so he can refer to his notes, but I find him making the same errors or not paying attention to the details when we work on the next project.

One of the things I have wanted to avoid since becoming a manager was to not micromanage my staff. I understand there needs to be some micromanaging to make sure the team is on track with company goals and to make sure their priorities are clearly understood so they don’t waste their day working on unnecessary items.

Without becoming an uber micromanager, how can I communicate to my two reports that they need to pay attention to the details because the same mistakes are constantly being made and it is noticed not only by me, but the clients if they don’t show me the drafts?

I do not know if they are not listening to me or they are working too fast and forget. When I share my thoughts and offer suggestions I try to explain the reasoning so they both know, it’s not because “I told you so!” but actually the reason why we “use this terminology” or why we “decided to go with this format,” etc. I’m at the point where I really want to say (but never will), “This has happened multiple times and it shows that you are not listening to me — you need to start showing me every project you are working on because I no longer can depend that you are learning from past mistakes and putting effort into your work.”

It sounds like you’re so focused on not wanting to be a micromanager that you’re missing the fact that your employees have legitimate performance issues that you should be addressing.

It is not micromanaging to clearly explain what a work product or outcome should look like, or to ask that work be done correctly, or to expect people to incorporate your feedback into their work in the future. That’s managing.

And there are times when a good manager should manage more closely than that as well, such as when an employee isn’t moving work forward, or it’s not being done well, or results are disappointing. Of course, if your close involvement is needed for a long stretch, it might be a sign that you don’t have the right person in the job and you’ll need to address that — but the answer meanwhile isn’t to stay hands-off if the work isn’t being done correctly.

So it sounds like it’s time to have a conversation with each of these two employees about the pattern you’re seeing. This is the step that managers often miss when they have concerns about someone’s work — they continue addressing each instance of the problem, and they get increasingly frustrated and concerned about the pattern, but they don’t sit down with the person and say, “Hey, we have a pattern here.” They assume the person sees the pattern as clearly as they do, but they never spell it out.

But you need to spell it out, because your employee may not see it as a pattern or realize that it’s risen to the level of a serious concern.

So with the first employee, say something like this: “We’ve talked several times before about making sure that I don’t need to make corrections to X, Y, and Z, but work keeps coming to me with those same mistakes in it. It’s become a pattern. What can you do differently going forward to ensure that it doesn’t continue to happen?”

With the second employee, you need to have a bigger conversation, because the problems are more serious. You should not need to have so much handholding that there’s “constant communication,” and it’s a real problem that he forgets project objectives and neglects details to the point that there are multiples revisions and drafts required. With him, I think you need to consider that he might not be the right person for the job … but the place to start is by being very clear with him about the bar for performance that you need in the role (someone who doesn’t rush and make mistakes, someone who keeps their eye on the big-picture objective but still pays attention to the details, and someone who produces high-enough quality work that it can be finalized without so many revisions). Tell him what a successful performance in the role would look like, tell him where he’s not meeting that bar, and tell him that you need to see real improvement from him.

(And if the problems continue, at that point you’ll need to consider whether you need someone else in the role.)

The point here, overall, is that your job as a manager is to make sure that you’re getting the results you need. Part of getting great results in the long-term is hiring great people and giving them room to do their jobs well. But if you’re not getting the type of results you want — or if it’s taking an unreasonable amount of time to get them — then you need to step in and get more involved.

In your case, I think you’ve swung so far in the “I don’t want to be a micromanager! Eeeekk, it’s a dirty word!” direction that you’re hesitating to actually manage.

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