Micromanaging or delegating: Which is better for the business?

January 15, 2009

Most physicians micromanage when a problem occurs in the office, instantly analyzing the issue and announcing the changes they want colleagues and staff to make. However, employees on the front line in factories, doctors' offices, etc., have more information, and often can come up with better solutions than the "all-knowing" manager. Delegation helps employees learn from the problem-solving experience, and that makes them more valuable.

Key Points

"Most discussions of decision making assume that only senior executives make decisions or that only senior executives' decisions matter. This is a dangerous mistake."

-Peter Drucker

I watched him coach a game once. His team began the game well, but suddenly their opponents took off, with rapid scoring, inspired defense, and great hustle, and Johnson's team started to fall behind. As coaches so often do in this situation, Johnson called a time out. But here's the interesting part: when his players gathered in a huddle to discuss what to do, Johnson did not join them. "You [players] figure out what's going wrong and what to do about it" was the coach's philosophy. And the players did. And ultimately they won the game.

This approach amazed me. Typical coaches go into the huddle and scream and yell, accuse their players of not trying hard enough, give orders, and talk the whole time because they (supposedly) have all the answers. Usually, players keep quiet, listen to the coach, and implement the orders.

But this coach sent the message to his players that he respected them and trusted them to figure out what to do to address the problems. In practice sessions for weeks and weeks, he had given them the skills and knowledge base he thought they needed, and now he relied on them to decide as a group how to proceed and take responsibility for carrying out the group's decisions while being accountable for the results.

In managing parlance, most coaches are micromanagers ("stand here, hold the ball like this," etc.). The advantages of this approach are that everyone knows who is making the decisions, no debates occur, the instructions are clear, and one person is responsible for the outcome.

But the opposing view is that employees on the front line in factories, doctors' offices, etc., have more information and often can come up with better solutions than the "all-knowing" manager. They also learn from the problem-solving experience, and that makes them more valuable.

Also, the person at the top of the organization often should have better things to do than deal with details. Jimmy Carter, while president of the United States, personally reviewed requests to use the White House tennis courts.2

I must admit that sometimes it seems obvious to me what should be done, but I bite my tongue so that a team of people can analyze the situation and come up with their solutions. They have ownership of the new strategy, are responsible for implementing it, and learn from the group's successes and failures. This approach invariably takes time, but when it works well, the people involved are better prepared to address new issues as they inevitably arise, and they believe that they are contributing in a way they don't when they just follow orders.

According to a recent article on this topic,2 micromanagers should try to:

When a problem occurs in your office, do you (like many physicians) instantly analyze the issue (unfilled clinic schedule, long waits on hold for callers, backups in clinic, etc.) and announce the changes you want your colleagues and staff to make? Or do you identify the issue and ask a group to analyze and solve the problem?

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

References

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avery_Johnson/

2. Tuna, C. "Micromanagers miss bull's-eye: Dealing with every detail robs subordinates of the freedom to solve problems." Wall Street Journal. November 3, 2008. Available at: http://www.careerjournal.com/article/SB122566866580091589.html.