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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox.
Ask Mission Central: Question Eighteen
“How can you work to still be a leader when you’re working in a company culture/with a manager who leans more toward micromanaging and not empowering people?”
A micromanaging boss can get under your skin. There’s something about having someone breathing down your neck—it’s not just annoying; it can feel infuriating. It makes you want to shout, “Just let me do my job!”
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the boss whose expectations are a mysterious void. You want to do a good job, but you’re hard-pressed to say what your job is. Sometimes you just make something up and do that for a while, because getting a straight answer or clear instructions is impossible.
The sweet spot for empowering leadership is between those two extremes: The boss who provides clear expectations and helpful guidance, but leaves the details of execution up to you, because you’re smart enough and competent enough to figure it out.
You’ve asked a great question: How can you work toward that healthy kind of leadership when it’s not what your boss or your broader company culture is demonstrating? The first step is to understand how empowerment works. That will allow you to work for empowerment, even “under cover,” to manage up with humility, and maybe even to lead in a way that empowers others.
Empowerment Means that Your Job is Whatever the Organization Needs
Let me start with a strange question. Why do you want to be empowered? After all, if your boss just tells you what to do, there’s no question about your job responsibilities. Just do what you’re told! How hard can that be?
It’s important to recognize that there are workers who want that level of instruction from their bosses. Some people are not interested in gaining greater decision-making authority. They want to know exactly what they’re supposed to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
But your question shows that you chafe against your every move being dictated. What you want is freedom. You’re not looking for the freedom to do whatever you want, but the freedom to accomplish your true responsibilities with a measure of flexibility in terms of how the work gets done. That desire raises the question: What are your true responsibilities?
Unlike the worker who wants everything spelled out, you must believe that your true job is something more than just doing what you’re told. You have a sense that there is some purpose you are trying to fulfill, result you are trying to produce, or goal you are trying to accomplish, and that your job is to do whatever’s necessary to hit that target. That purpose, result, or goal has a place within the broader mission of your organization and its needs.
That intuition of yours is a sign that you already have an attitude of owning the whole scope of your organization. Just like a shareholder is a part-owner of the company, along with many other owners, a team member can own the whole organization, even though their domain of responsibility is just one part of it. At the highest level, the senior leaders of an organization are responsible for aligning all the parts of the organization to make sure it fulfills the mission of the whole. But that’s also your true responsibility. Your job is to ask yourself, “How does my area serve our mission, and how can I make sure that it does that in the right way?”
Here’s another way of saying the same thing, which might sound strange at first: Your job is not just to do what you’re told. Your job is to do whatever the organization needs from you. Empowerment is what happens when you, your team, and your boss all agree about that.
Empowering Team Members “Under Cover”
But what if your boss is the one who disagrees? If your boss seems to think that your job is just to do what you’re told, it can feel like you’re in a corner. But you can work “under cover,” subversively promoting empowerment even in the middle of a disempowering environment. Let your attitude of owning the whole scope of the team and the organization guide you.
For example, if a team member is struggling to do their job, whose problem is that? If you own the whole scope of the team, then it’s your problem, whether or not your boss has asked you to help them out. Without contradicting any directives from your boss, you can still take the initiative to support others. Leveraging informal, relational moments with others will help you show support without undercutting your boss’s authority.
Take time to ask how others are doing.
A good boss will have a regular touchpoint with their direct reports to find out what’s going well and poorly for them. But a good teammate can do the same. Whether it’s over a coffee break or in a quick Zoom chat, get a pulse on what others are feeling and what challenges they’re facing.
Help ensure everyone is on the same page.
If you get a sense in a team meeting that someone is not quite getting something, but your boss doesn’t pick up on it, you can be the one to go that person after the meeting and ask if it would help to go over it one more time. (Obviously, don’t do this with a know-it-all attitude, but with an offer of genuine helpfulness!)
Offer constructive feedback on workplace skills.
Sometimes, someone is struggling not so much with the work project itself, as with workplace skills like time management, communication, or interpersonal conflict. Younger or newer workers in particular may be getting their feet under them for the first time—and many of them without the benefits of an in-person work environment. Could you schedule a one-on-one and ask your teammate if it’s okay to provide some feedback? If they’re not getting the coaching from your boss, they might still be open to it from you.
Obviously, these suggestions presuppose that you already have the freedom to plan your own meetings, and enough flexibility in the timing of your work to make time for such conversations. If your boss doesn’t give you even that much elbow room, you may have to get even more creative. Many of these conversations could happen on a lunch break, or even outside of work.
At this point, it’s important to say a word about humility. As disciples of Jesus, we should be the first people to recognize that our insight is limited, and that we are often tempted to remove a speck from someone else’s eye when we’ve got a log in our own (see Matthew 7:3-5).
Earlier, I wrote that your job is not just to do what you’re told; it’s to do whatever the organization needs from you. Humility demands us to further nuance this idea in two ways:
Your job is more than doing what you’re told, it’s not less.
Honoring your boss’s authority as your boss should be your baseline. The archetypal unempowered worker is the slave. And even slaves receive this word in the New Testament: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (Colossians 3:22 NIV). When you chafe against your boss’s shortcomings, are you still working hard, with a sincere heart for the work?
Know your place.
While we all hope for bosses who will welcome us into the process of discerning what the organization needs from us, it is also more their job than ours to make that call. It’s easy to presume we understand and know more than we do. Dallas Willard once wrote: “I have a three step plan for humility:
1. never pretend
2. never presume
3. never push.”
Sometimes, we find ourselves in conflict with our bosses not because they’re micromanaging, but because we’ve presumed we know how to do their job better than they do. When I was first out of college and serving on a church staff, I often felt like I was seeing things that others weren’t. But in hindsight, I can see that some of that confidence about my own insights came from pride and presumption more than a desire to serve others. Check your own heart: Is any of the chafing the result of your boss’s approach coming into contact with your own pride? If so, the first step is to ask for the grace of humility, not to solve your boss’s work problem.
With those nuances in mind, managing up with an attitude of humility is still possible, as God gives us grace. There are two main ways to manage up to a micromanager:
Offer them a substitute.
Get inside your boss’s head: When they’re micromanaging, it’s because they’re looking for something that will reassure them. They want to be sure the work is being accomplished, hopefully with the broader mission of the organization in mind. So their unhealthy default option is to ensure that by sticking their nose in every detail. They’re trying to meet a genuine leadership need, but in the wrong way. So, you can manage up by offering them a substitute that really does meet that need: A way to reassure them that the work is being done, and done right. Maybe that could be a weekly meeting where you give a very detailed report on your work from the past week. Maybe it could be a statement of your plans on how you would accomplish the project, spelled out in a way that anticipates concerns your boss might raise.
Confront them directly.
Like any problematic pattern of behavior, micromanagement is one that may best be addressed through healthy conflict. Tell your boss how their approach makes you feel, and ask for the freedom you want. It may help to start small by asking for more elbow room in one specific area where you feel confident. Not every boss will respond positively to this kind of confrontation, but sometimes conversations like this really can catalyze some soul-searching and a genuine effort to change.
Being the Boss You Wish You Had
If you do have team members who report directly to you, but your manager tends to be a micromanager, you have the opportunity to be the boss you wish you had. It will also give you a chance to empathize with your boss’s situation: Empowering people can be challenging! You can’t just delegate responsibility and assume everything will turn out okay. You need to provide team members with clear expectations about what their goal is. Then, as they figure out how to accomplish that goal, you need to try and discern what guidance they need about how to accomplish it, without breathing down their neck and becoming the micromanager yourself.
As you try to figure out delegation for each team member, you’ll discover that the universe is not neatly divided into mindless drones and empowered super-leaders. All along the spectrum, people are comfortable with more or less freedom and support based on their personal competence in the whole set of interlocking skills that are relevant to your team’s work.
Consider a sales team. An experienced member of the team might feel confident about helping coach newer members in sales skills, but lack confidence in improving the technology used for measuring sales results. Another, newer team member might happen to have a technical insight about reporting that helps everyone organize their work better. You have the space here to bring both consistency and differentiation. For example, you could ask the same three questions of all team members in your one-on-one meetings that point to the vision of your organization, but let each person respond however they need to.
You have to continually ask yourself, “What is each team member ready for?” Don’t delegate beyond someone’s readiness. A brand-new salesperson shouldn’t be training everyone else in how to do sales, and someone who doesn’t know the word “database” shouldn’t be in charge of reporting. Work to unearth your people’s true strengths and then let them play to those strengths. After all, that’s what you wish your boss would do for you: see that you have the strengths needed to do the work with some independence.
But strengths don’t just exist in individuals; they also exist in teams. It’s your job to foster an environment where all team members can own the whole scope together. Your team members may not intuitively connect the dots, but with a little guidance they’ll start to see the whole picture. It starts with really believing that your team members can support one another so that they can “figure it out” together—whatever “it” is.
Empowerment and Growth
Make sure you do something rather than nothing about the micromanagement you’re concerned about. If you don’t, you run the risk of letting resentment toward your boss fester, which is bad for both your motivation at work and for your soul. You’ve got options in terms of the approach that makes sense right now. Maybe it’s working “under cover,” maybe it’s working for a different culture with your own direct reports, and maybe it’s tackling the issue head-on in a conversation with your boss. As a leader seeking empowerment, the first step is to own what you can own about this situation itself. It’s not up to your boss whether you find a healthy way to respond; it’s up to you. And whatever you choose to do, it will serve as a moment of growth that helps you become more of the healthy worker and leader that you want to be.
Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash