How Can You Avoid Micromanaging? Use the Socratic Method

Could you be a micromanager? Set your employees free with these important tips.

The most successful executives are those who learn to delegate. A top manager hires experienced people who complement his skill set and fill his gaps, letting his subordinates help make him look like a superstar performer who gets things done.

Micromanagers, on the other hand, often share several traits: poor hiring skills, job insecurity, a command style of management and a large ego. You know you’re a micromanager if you not only assign tasks, but also tell your employees exactly how you want the work done. You often end up doing or re-doing much or all of the work you assign to a staff member.

How do you let your employees use their personal talents to execute projects without letting them run amok without supervision? Using the Socratic Method of people management lets you be both a responsible and successful supervisor instead of one who micromanages and drives away your employees.

Here’s a step-by-step method for improving your staff-management skills.

#1 Start with a Macro Goal

Discuss with your subordinate the end goal of the project. Send the general project specs and macro goal (or result) in an email, telling her you’ll speak with her later in the day about her thoughts on how she wants to proceed. This will give her time to think about what she can bring to the project.

#2 Ask for a Solution Before you Give One

Meet with your employee and ask her how she wants to handle the project. Be prepared with your suggestions, instructions and resources, but let her propose her ideas first. You might find she has a better path to the goal than you’ve considered. If she comes up with the same solution you had, don’t tell her you’ve already thought of her idea – just let her know you agree with her plan and think it’s a winner. You get no benefit from telling a staff member you already had the same idea she had, but you can boost a staffer’s morale and self-confidence by giving a green light to her ideas.

#3 Collaborate Instead of Dictate

After you’ve heard your staff member’s thoughts on solving the problem and handling the project, give your ideas if you feel they’re necessary or you feel your employee needs help. Ask questions when possible, instead of giving orders. For example, instead of saying, “I want you to contact these three departments,” say, “I’d like input from other departments on this. I was thinking of A, B and C? Am I missing any, or do you think this will cover it?” If your employee is completely off base with her initial approach to a task, you can point out your concerns and then suggest your ideas with a, “How do you think this would work?” approach, allowing her to give some input. When you are done with the meeting, your employee should feel as though she’s working WITH you instead of just FOR you, and that you have confidence in her to get the job done.

#4 Set your Parameters

Work with your employee to set deadlines, including benchmarks that must be met before the final deadline. This will help you get ongoing information on the status of any project and avoid finding out a task isn’t done when it’s deadline time. This helps you responsibly manage and control your office and projects without seeming to micromanage and over-control your employees.

#5 Explain Rather than Mandate

When you receive deliverables, instead of simply pointing out errors or asking for changes, ask why your staffer handled certain areas of the project the way she did. Make your suggestions and ask what she thinks of the changes you’d like to make. While it’s much easier to just send a list of corrections, you might be sending the message that you don’t like your employee’s work or that she’s not competent. If you don’t have time for a back-and-forth, send your revisions back with positive feedback first. Point out one or more strengths of the deliverable and then offer your suggestions. Take the time to explain why you think they strengthen the work and ask if your employee agrees or has any further suggestions. Even a quick explanatory phrase next to a sentence or paragraph you’ve deleted in a report lets your staffer know you’re still working with her.

Using the Socratic Method when assigning employee tasks, combined with requiring regular status updates, lets you keep firm control of your projects but allows you to decrease your workload, get better results from your staff and improve morale at your agency or department. If you honestly believe the reason you need to closely manage an employees is because of her lack of skills and experience (rather than your personal issues), take steps to improve her skill-set with continuing education and training.

Check out these discussions on dealing with micromanagement by GovLoop contributors David and Margaret and various GovLoop members.

Additional Resource

MindTools: Avoid Micromanging

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Sabrina H. DeLay

I am a big proponent of more questions from managers — engage in a conversation, let your staff exercise their skills and what they do best in these conversations. I touch on these points over in my blog, Let’s Get Technical. I think the Socratic Method is an excellent best practice.