President, Lefkoe Institute
March 11, 2011
Despite the fact that younger members of the workforce are demanding the opportunity to think for themselves and contribute their brains as well as their brawn to their companies, many managers still insist on micromanaging their employees.
My experience is that most supervisors and mid-level managers who have had their jobs at least 15 years act this way. The reason is that they have this belief: The job of managers is to figure out what workers ought to do and then get them to do it.
Given the current commitment in many organizations to have managers listen to and empower their workers instead of “boss” them, this belief often prevents corporate policy from being implemented on lower levels.
The ability to assist managers to rid themselves of this belief would have a significant impact at many organizations. The following “case history” is a composite of a number of different conversations with managers at several companies. If you follow the same line of questioning, you, too, can produce the same results.
Most managers who have this belief generally state it as a fact, as something that is so obviously true that the manager isn’t sure what there is to talk about. What else would a manager do other than figure what needs to be done and then get their employees to do it?
“Okay” I say, “you think it’s the truth: Where did it come from? What did you experience in your life that led you to this belief?”
The answer is always some version of, “I see it every day”—and then they tell their daily war stories.
“I’m sure you do see it every day,” I respond, “but what was the earliest experience that led to the belief? What happened yesterday isn’t the source of the belief, because you believed it the day before yesterday, didn’t you?”
They usually refer to their first job, sometimes a part-time job in high school, sometimes a summer job, sometimes a first job after college. I ask them to describe what happened.
“Well, there was this guy, the manager, who told us what to do and how to do it—and then we did it. Sometimes, when he wasn’t around, we goofed off. And when he was around, we worked harder.”
I probe a little. “Did many of the workers initiate work that the manager didn’t ask for?”
“A couple of workers sometimes, but most of us just did what we were told to do.”
“Did you know what to do before the manager told you?”
“Did most of the other workers know what to do before the manager told them?”
Want more from Morty Lefkoe? Check these out:
“So what did managers do at your first job?”
“They told people what to do.”
“And what did workers do?”
“What the managers told them to do.”
“So your belief—The job of managers is to figure out what workers ought to do and then get them to do it. If managers don’t tell people what to do, nothing will get done—was a logical conclusion for you based on your first couple of job experiences, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a silly or irrational conclusion. It really made sense, didn’t it?”
The managers respond, “It sure did.”
“Let’s play a game,” I say. “It’s called Possibilities. Let’s see if we can find 10 possible explanations for, or interpretations of, what you observed in your first job, other than what you concluded. We aren’t looking for a better explanation. The one you came up with is as good as any we’ll find. But let’s find ten more.”
It only takes a few minutes to find them.
1. All the managers at that company told people what to do, but that might not be true at all companies.
2. The workers at that company only did what they were told to do, but at other companies they might do more on their own.
3. Managers acted that way in that industry, but not necessarily in all industries.
4. Those specific ten or twenty workers and managers I worked with acted that way; other workers and managers might not.
5. That behavior occurred in the particular corporate culture that existed at the time. It might not occur in any other type of corporate culture.
6. That behavior occurred in the United States. Managers and workers in Japan, Germany, or some other country might not exhibit that behavior at all.
7. That behavior occurred in the 1970s