Empowerment vs. Micromanagement
Every leader should be seeking to empower their team. But it's easier said than done. Laurence Pintenat discusses empowerment vs. micromanagement, and why so many leaders fall into the trap.
In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, we interview Laurence Pintenat, a leadership expert based out of DDI's Paris office. She joins us to discuss the skills leaders need to empower their teams and what can sometimes stand in the way.
Hi everyone and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes, and today we're going to talk about how to empower your team and some of the biggest risks that get in the way, especially micromanaging. My guest is Laurence Pintenat, who is a leadership expert in the DDI Paris office. Laurence has more than 30 years helping companies build strong capable leaders, and has been a coach for countless individual leaders over the years. Laurence, thank you for joining us today.
Well, it's a pleasure, Beth. Thank you for inviting me.
Empowerment isn't really a new concept. We've been talking about this for a long time, but I think what is different is how it looks as jobs, workplaces, and demands change on workers. So what do you think empowerment looks like today?
Yeah. Beth, I remember when I first heard about the concept of empowerment in the early '90s and I informally collected some managers' reactions from different industries. They said, so it's like letting loose horses. A bit of fear that it would mean complete freedom for employees and therefore less control. Actually their first virtual reaction gave me instant insight of what empowerment was touching on, the notion of power to act.
Actually I think at that time, what it meant at least for DDI was more like for the organization or the managers to define the what and led the initiative to figure out the how's, if of course they were sufficiently equipped with the right knowledge and skills. Organizations around the world have since then more or less adopted this management style, depending on their leadership culture and their belief about what would really help them to overcome business challenges and customer needs.
For sure, as you said Beth, empowerment is not a new concept, but it's far from a reality in all the organizations that would benefit from it. Nevertheless, I find interesting is that today, the changes in work modality due to the pandemic crisis, like for example, remote work has created, not to say forced, the conditions for empowerment. Actually when you look at the three areas for empowerment, where our empowerment needs to be brought to life, which means leadership, job design, and organization systems and environment, I think that leadership is certainly the one that has the greatest impact on empowerment.
So how does empowerment look today? Well, maybe looking into the mirror of the status of leadership skills globally can help in answering this question. And DDI has performed about 400,000 leadership assessments over 50 years. Our data show that among the skills that represent the more frequent gaps is still delegation, coaching, and developing and involving others in decision-making.
Let's talk about those skills a little bit more. What really are the skills that leaders need that help them empower their teams?
Well, it depends of course on the diagnostic of their individual skill gap. But based on my experience in providing feedback and coaching to leaders, supplemented by DDI research, I would say that the falling behaviors are key to foster empowerment. For example, let it go, delegate, in order to positively challenge people and give them the means to develop and grow.
Another one would be to clearly articulate performance, expectations, and monitor progress, or of course share decision-making authority. It's not only delegating tasks, it's delegating the authority that goes with it. Encourage ideas and initiative, I think it's a very important one as well. Something also that is very powerful to build trust which is, communicate openly, sharing thoughts, your rational, why you think what you say and the appropriate feelings.
I said something around having the right skills and knowledge. So what goes with that is to practically coach to ensure the success of your team members. It's not only past experience coaching, but beforehand, so that people feel confident to take initiative and perform. This confidence is very important if you want to see empowerment happening.
And last but not least, I would say you employing to fail forward, which means to be tolerant to experimentation and potential mistakes. The key of empowerment, the art of empowerment to me is also to generate trust. So for a leader, it means to take any interaction opportunity to generate not only the trust to the other person, but also that the person trusts you. This is so important as people need to be sure that they won't be penalized if they make mistakes when taking initiative.
I think that's such an important point as you talk about failing forward, a lot of people want to be able to do that. And we see a lot that's really hard for a manager to let your employee... Like you don't want to let your employees fail.
What happens if your team member fails? So that's just one of the things the leaders fear that their employees will fail, and that kind of stands in the way and makes them fearful of empowerment. What other kinds of things stand in the way of managers empowering their teams?
Well, I think that there is an obvious one, which is micromanaging. It's one of the big culprits. And we can talk more about it through this conversation later on, because I think it's an important one to focus on, if we really want to understand what's getting in the way of empowerment.
But other things could be like inconsistent behaviors, like encouraging initiative, but at the same time reprimanding the employee when they make a mistake, so it's quite confusing. What about the thirst of power of certain leaders and the lack of a awareness of it, to the extent that it could be counterproductive. So for these leaders, sharing responsibilities is just too problematic.
Sometimes certain employees themselves and their past experience can be part of the barrier to empowerment. For example, prolonged exposure to an autocratic leadership style, as in certain cultures, can make it harder for them to believe that empowering leaders exist for real, and don't have any hidden agenda.
So it could be also a lack of motivation to be empowered. And it's not a judgment, the way it is, sometimes as some people look for safety at work, more than taking initiative on the ship. But they also cannot change their mind and their behavior if they are comforted by empowering leaders, authentic ones.
I do want to dive a little bit deeper into that concept of micromanaging. It's one of those things that I think right now is one of the big sins of leadership. Everybody hates a micromanager, and yet it's one of the first things, one of those first traps most first-time leaders fall into the moment they get promoted.
Do you think a lot of people realize that they're micromanaging or do they have like a wake-up call with suddenly they're like, "Oh my gosh, that is me. I'm a micromanager."
Yeah. I guess the question is why people tend to micromanage. I have done hundreds of feedback debriefs with leaders from different cultures based on assessment data, as well as coaching. Based on that, I don't think it's intentional in most of the cases. Nobody wakes up in the morning saying, "Hey, today, I'm going to micromanage." Most of the time they don't realize they are drifting towards micromanaging behaviors, or they can see some negative impact, like losing people, productivity and credibility, but without necessarily making the causal link with their tendency to micromanage.
In any case, they don't really know how to behave differently when they acknowledge that there is something wrong. To me, the most powerful, but painful wake up call I have observed was an impact on the health of leaders, or when the body stopped to say, stop, it's too much workload or they admit they have too many worries on their shoulders.
Fortunately there are other means to avoid such extreme situations, to accelerate your wellness of such leaders. Like for example, providing them with the opportunity to experiment in a safe way, the future of their role requirements and to visualize or even feel the impact of their micromanaging tendency on individual and team performance.
So here I'm talking just for people who are listening to us, might be familiar with that. I'm talking about the business simulations, like one day in the life of a leader of the future. And the debrief of such experience completed with personality inventories that look at enablers and derailers is very powerful, not only for self-awareness, but also as a basis for coaching on alternative successful behaviors.
I think that is such an interesting idea, especially the concept that so often it's not going to be your team who tells you they might, but it's going to be your own self as the leader thinking, I can't possibly do the work of five people, you're not meant to. So once you start to get overwhelmed by all of that, that's really a great sign to say that you're doing too much, you're not letting your team do their jobs as they're supposed to.
If you're the one who's taking on five people's workload, this is not sustainable. I'm really wandering as we're now shifting to, so many people are working remotely, I'm wondering how you're seeing things change related to empowerment vs. micromanagement, especially when everybody is out of sight, I can't see if people are working at home, are they focused on things or are they distracted by the kids? Do you feel like remote work is making things better or worse?
Beth, thank you for asking the questions. This is a very current and timely question. As we all know, accountability, ownership, and trust are in the art of empowerment. When I look at what's going on in the world today, I think that dealing with the extent of consequences of health and economic crisis will really require that everyone not only feels concerned about it, but also develop a stronger sense of accountability and initiative.
But yeah, to really actively participate in problem solving, and when I look at the world of business, I have recently heard very concrete issues expressed from both HR and business leaders such as, how would you generate autonomy and collaboration within a remote workforce, of course, without micromanaging, or how to build trust within their own team and with older remote teams, or even how to develop a caring culture and motivate teams remotely.
It could be that empowerment is one of the key underlying levers to answer this question? I was able to observe across different organizations that working from home for some people has had many advantages, among which is freedom.
So freedom to organize themselves for example, and manage their time as they want, freedom to take the time to think, to step back to think and be more creative in solving problems, or freedom not to have to take public transportation to go to the office, or freedom to recycle time from commuting, time to do professional and personal activities, et cetera.
And these freedoms, if well-managed and supported by a strong sense of collective sense of proportion and individual accountability has led to more productivity and greater initiatives and achievements these last months. The positive outcome that certain organizations benefit from in this context of subjectively perceived freedom, I think will continue to be cultivated in the next months to come.
Other things I heard is that some people are also very happy with the fact that they don't have to show up every morning in an office and to have to be physically present next to their manager, sometimes as the relationship before COVID was not of the most positive one.
Of course there are also employees who can and prefer working on site. But already today, and I think still tomorrow, there will be a mix of remote and onsite teams. So long story short, to answer your question I would say, it is not making better or worse, it just gives opportunities to leaders to adapt their behaviors, and especially if they have the tendency to micromanage.
And these micromanaging leaders can sometimes worry as you know about the being disconnected, even more when part of their teams and themselves are working from home. There is certainly a pressure to perform through their team and that they can't see as spontaneously as before. It's not an easy thing. And they can really easily derail us, so this pressure is on their shoulders again. But the reality is that over-controlling is not possible anymore and it's not efficient for keeping an engaged remote workforce.
At the same time, these leaders might not be willing to take risk, to try another approach they can't control. Remote work is certainly a challenge for them, but at the same time, an excellent opportunity to grow as leaders. So the mix of remote and onsite workers in their teams is here to stay in the near future.
And if they want to continue performing, they are better to experiment and reconsider their own way to interact with their team. So what to do, for example, clearly articulate the expectations, check for understanding, and make all their team members accountable for the outcome, not for every detail, so the opportunity to coach is there upon their needs. And if they're still tempted to control, which might happen, reconsider coaching and feedback as moments to still be connected with their employees and make things about the best way to perform.
Laurence as you're talking here, one of the things that's striking me is, I'm wondering how, especially this might be playing out for younger workers in the workforce today, so Gen Z is just getting its start. Folks in their early '20s who are starting work and what has now become a very weird work world, as we cope with this pandemic.
But you know, what I've seen with a lot of really young people coming into the workforce is on the one hand, these are I mean, they called millennials, the digital natives, but this Gen Z is even more so super comfortable working remotely, super comfortable with empowerment and working digitally great.
On the flip side of that, they do need a lot of feedback. They're new to the workforce, and especially if they're working remotely, they're not surrounded by colleagues where you can naturally often observe and just pick up what everybody else is doing, which is so much how you learn as you're getting into the workplace. So how have you seen these generational issues play out, and how people are reacting differently to empowerment as they're working with these younger workers?
Yes. You said something very important, which is yes, the need for feedback. Tell me how am I doing even remotely? So when I dig deeper into this topic, I was able to see that research shows that empowering leadership has a stronger, positive influence on the day-to-day performance of employees who have less experience in the organization compared to employees who had been in their job for longer.
In other words, empowering leaders seek to see greater improvements on job performance among less experienced employees that might be Gen Z, for example, comparing to more experienced employees. I don't want to make any generalizations as there are of course, individual differences, but I do believe that Gen Z people tend be motivated by having a direct impact on their work and on their environments, through their actions or projects.
Meaning being involved in decisions, being sure that decisions won't be slowed down because of a heavy cost structure, and of course continuously developing their knowledge and skills to be able to do so. With remote work I observed that Gen Z appreciate the freedom as any other employees do, then nevertheless appreciate to be in touch more frequently with their managers and not to be let on their own so much.
So not being micromanagers of course, but asking for more frequent human touch to benefit from guidance and coaching. And also social moments are important. One of the best practices I've seen recently is for example, to plan a series of informal meetings. And I'm saying informal meetings because we'd Zoom and an older remote communication channel, everything is a really structured plan, et cetera in advance. So people are liking informal moments.
A series of informal meetings in respective calendars, just to make sure that space, even remote space and time are secured and the employee decides to use it or not depending on needs and those his or her leader will make the time. The same applies with the team through these informal moments, the leader explicitly sends the following message to his or her team. This time is booked for you. I will be actively present for you, use it upon your needs, I trust you. So this is what I think that Gen Z's would need.
That's such great advice. And I think that, that need for feedback is so important, especially as we're not seeing each other, we don't even see always. You don't see each other's facial expressions or those tiny moments, feedback is just becoming so critical. I think, especially as you mentioned, the feedback to show how people are making an impact to say, listen this is where you took this initiative and here's how it's playing out and all of that.
That really does empower people. And it brings me to my last question, it's a final question we ask everyone on the show. Can you share a moment of leadership that had an impact on you and your life for better for worse, something that really stuck with you?
Yes. I think it sticks to me still today. So I had the great opportunity to participate in recruiting the workforce and leaders for a plant startup couple of years ago. And I asked the plant manager of this automobile organization, if I could attend his opening speech during an induction training, he was doing for new employees, by the way the ones I contributed to recruit.
So I was starting my career at DDI, so a young consultant and he was already a young executive. So not only he accepted, but he also asked me to provide him with feedback on the way he would have performed his speech.
Well, I felt in charge. What he did at this time is to empower me really in providing him with feedback, trusting me and giving me the chance to apply my observation and feedback skills. And frankly, I would have never dared to ask him proactively to do so at that time.
That was the first time I saw an executive proactively asking for feedback, furthermore to a young lady at that time. So he wasn't that defensive on his time actually. So he's now, by the way, the number two of this multinational mobility organizational leader and its market.
That is such a powerful story. I think on so many levels, one, the humble nature of people who are really successful in climbing the corporate ladder. Also, I think more importantly that empowerment isn't just always about getting feedback or giving feedback and helping people know where they're doing well or need to adjust, but also just the power of asking for feedback and letting people know that their opinions, their thoughts, their feelings, they all matter just as equally as anyone else's. That's wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Beth for giving me the opportunity to tell the story, because actually it makes me want to build on it, especially with your last comment.
Thank you. This has been such a great conversation today, Laurence. And thank you to all of our listeners who spent part of their 480 with us today. I'm Beth Almes, reminding all of you to make every moment of leadership count.