As a leader, are you overmanaging?

leadership concept that goes back about 60 years is called Theory X versus Theory Y. Leaders typically fall into one of these two buckets. If you believe in Theory X, it means you don’t trust the people who work for you, so you need to spend your time watching and micromanaging them to get results. On the other hand, Theory Y says that leaders trust everyone by default, and most people will do the right thing independently.

The truth is that most leaders probably embrace a bit of both theories as they manage people. But how you think about these theories might also come to light when you answer an essential question: Do you manage activity or results?

What’s your management style?

The idea behind this question is how you interact with the people who report to you. Do you allow your people autonomy in working, as long as the results are there? Or do you find yourself prescribing the kinds of things your people should be doing daily to help them drive better results?

Let’s look at an example. In this scenario, you manage a software sales organization. You have a sales rep who hits the quota you set for him every month. But you also know that he likes to play a lot of golf. So, he makes five calls a week. He’s hitting his numbers, so do you have a problem with his behavior?

Some might say: This sales rep is lazy. What would happen if he doubled his work and made 10 calls a week? He could double his sales, making more money for him and the company. That is Theory X.
But some might counter by saying: That rep has earned the right to play golf. The company set his target–and he hit it. What’s fair is fair. Right? That is Theory Y.

The temptation to micromanage

Now, if the sales rep is not hitting his numbers, how might your answer differ? That likely opens things up in a way where you’re more focused on that rep’s activity simply because the results aren’t there. But even then, there’s a catch.

As soon as you, the leader, start to manage someone’s activity–like asking this rep how many calls he made, who he called, did he follow up, etc.–you’re showing that you’ve lost trust in that person. Quite frankly, you’re not happy, and neither is the rep–who is likely miserable at having you question everything he’s doing. In a lot of ways, you both lose.

When I shifted from managing results to managing activities, employees were in the wrong place with me. I resented working on their actions, and the probability of recovery was not high. More times than not, this ended with an employee leaving the company, either by their choice or mine.

You limit your output

There’s another catch to managing activity: bandwidth. As a leader, especially if you’re leading a fast-growth company, it’s going to take a significant investment of your time to manage the activities of your people as opposed to just the results.

While it can be tempting to micromanage your way toward higher performance, it’s been proved time and time again that the best leaders are those who focus more on driving results than being drawn down into day-to-day activity. Not only does that help you maximize the impact of your time, but it also maintains a sense of trust among your people. As soon as you lose that, well, you will suddenly have much bigger issues to confront.

The kink in the hose

If you find yourself tempted to manage an employee’s activities, think back to when you had a boss micromanage your work. How did that feel? Not great, right? It’s worth remembering that feeling as you go about managing your team.

It would help if you also considered whether spending your time managing activities is the best investment you can make. It’s possible that by neglecting other issues inside the business, you might become the constraint–the kink in the hose–to future growth.

I’m not saying you can’t serve as a valuable guide and resource for your people when their results are down. But if you maintain some distance and give them the autonomy to fix their performance issues, you can maintain and potentially increase the trust you have among your team. When you do that, you might even find you can increase their results over the long run while also ensuring you spend your own time on higher-leverage issues inside the business.

Finding the right balance

So, whenever you can, think about applying Theory Y to your management style while keeping your focus on managing results–knowing that you can keep Theory X and the management of activities as your contingency plan.

If you can find that right balance, you’ll find it’s more effective for you, the employee, and the company. You all win.

Jim Schleckser