If you Google the word micromanage, you will find nearly a million responses from that search. There are so many books, blog posts, white papers, and the like written about how destructive micromanaging can be to morale, engagement, and the organization at large. One of the key drivers of employee engagement is the opposite of micromanage – that is the concept of autonomy (which incidentally yields over 50 million responses to a Google search). So in order to improve engagement and not micromanage, many leaders move down the spectrum towards autonomy. Problem is, autonomy and micromanaging aren’t on the extreme ends of the same spectrum.

In my experience, micromanaging sits on the far end of the negative side of that spectrum and autonomy sits about two-thirds to three-quarters down towards the positive side of that spectrum. The extreme opposite of micromanaging isn’t autonomy, it is abandonment and many leaders don’t fully get – or at least their leadership choices and behavior don’t show – the distinctions between autonomy and abandonment.

We Western, linear thinking folks like to believe that there is a static state of things and once we figure that out it must be true for all. So, we sheep dip our teams in our dualistic understanding of leadership and wonder why we don’t get better results…chasing yet another grand universal principle we get to spread around as if it is some magic pixie dust. Truth is, what is autonomy for some is abandonment for others.

This is true at nearly every level in the organization, including the C-Suite (although no one likes to admit or talk about this too openly).

Employees, no matter their labels within the organization, are not a homogenous bunch. Some have different skill levels, different relationships with the idea of work, different maturity levels, and different cultural experiences within the organization. If someone is less than confident and this is their first job or management position, it wouldn’t take much autonomy to stress them out and make them feel abandoned.

If you are always talking about how their role is autonomous and that they are meant to deliver, there is a high degree of probability they aren’t going to tell you and they are going to perform accordingly. High errors. Calling in sick. Defensive. Bad performance reviews.

On the other hand, someone who has been in the job awhile and takes some genuine initiative would embrace that level of autonomy and actually thrive in it. They would feel hemmed in if you took that away from them and likely develop a less than desirable attitude towards work because they would feel micromanaged. Same team. Same functional work. Two very different people who would view autonomy and abandonment quite differently. Read this post on the value of treating people differently to leverage potential.

When this happens at the C-Suite, it shows up as dysfunctional leadership. Someone may be highly competent in their area of specialty, but delivering well at the executive level takes a different set of leadership skills. There is no failure like success, and what gets you to the C-Suite often times doesn’t serve you well when you’re actually working in the C-Suite.

What do you do when an executive is meant to function with a high degree of autonomy, but is feeling a sense of abandonment?

This is where it is critical for the C-Suite to truly have solid team dynamics. If those relational dynamics aren’t tight, that executive who feels abandoned will want to save face. This usually turns ugly and the rest of the organization feels it. If you are the CEO, you have to get in front of this. If you are a fellow executive, you must support and develop your team mate.

No matter the level of the employee – from frontline staff to the executive team – there are some key things that can be done to support them until they achieve the level of autonomy needed for the role without feeling abandoned.

  1. Understand where they are – What specifically makes them feel abandoned. This may take some coaching to get to the root cause(s), but it is well worth the effort to build this list. No matter who they are, they need to feel safe and that their position isn’t vulnerable just because they aren’t ready to be 100% autonomous just yet. There will be time to discuss a reasonable timeline for full autonomy later. Now is the discovery stage.
  2. Prioritize the list – Based on what you come up with that is standing in the way of autonomy, discuss how it should be prioritized. Should it be based on the quick win to build confidence, or is it more of a pressing business need that requires immediate attention? Have this conversation openly with each individual to make sure there is alignment and agreement on a path forward.
  3. Include it in employee development – Ideally, you will have an Individual Development Plan (IDP) for everyone in your organization. How can the effort applied towards building autonomy and avoiding abandonment be folded into that IDP? Are there projects or project teams that the employee can step into in order to build the skills/confidence/whatever that make autonomy something that is more easily embraced? Be creative and let it be in partnership with the employee being developed.
  4. Check in regularly – Don’t paint a path and send them on their way like they are on a walk to grandma’s house. Walk with them and check in on their progress. See if they are confused or need some encouragement. Maybe you need to help navigate or remove a few obstacles to ensure they are successful. Be supportive and their performance will reward you and your organization handsomely.
  5. Celebrate wins – Don’t be magoo about it, but if they truly achieved something noteworthy or overcame something that was significantly difficult for them, celebrate that win with them. Be engaged in their progress and make sure they know you are with them.
  6. Adjust as needed – Business is a dynamic endeavor and it shifts rather quickly. Make sure that the effort applied matches where the business is. Yes, it is about the individual developing; however, it is pointless to develop them to a place that is no longer relevant for the business.
  7. Have an end point – The never-ending project is an irritant to everyone. Don’t let this journey be that. When you are crafting the development goal, make sure you include how you will know when it will be completed. What key items are triggers that a desired level of competency has been reached in a particular area? Revisit the first item – Understand Where They Are – and let that be a confirmation of achieving what you set out to achieve.

Embrace the diversity within your organization, but develop the individual to be higher value to themselves and the organization. Autonomy is great for engagement, but abandonment will wreck it. Make sure you know where your folks are.

I would love to hear your thoughts or experiences on how this may have played out in previous organizations you have encountered!