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The Helicopter Boss Syndrome

Putting Micromanagement under the Microscope

It’s near impossible to hit “big picture” goals and intricately manage every moving piece at the same time. Many managers have allowed themselves to fall into the “Helicopter” style of management, which stifles creativity and demotivates people. The good news is that once recognized, this unproductive and unhealthy habit can be broken.

Research indicates that one of the top reasons people leave companies is because of poor relationships with their managers. People like to feel they are capable of doing a good day’s work, and would not stay in a position where they feel their manager isn’t confident that they can do an efficient job on their own. Replacing these employees can cost up to 2.5 times of their salaries, which takes its toll on the company’s bottom line.

Allowing people to do a good job and learn positively from their mistakes is key to the health and growth of everyone involved. For Helicopter bosses, the hardest part of letting go and empowering others is their driving need to “control” everything. But the days of command-and-control are fast disappearing and managers who feel compelled to micromanage need to “reboot” and upgrade their style of management or run the risk of becoming obsolete.

Today’s employees appreciate working with managers and leaders who offer challenging opportunities to unlock their potential and creativity, and create a “no-fear”, autonomous environment. Under a constant gaze people begin to lose faith in their own abilities, and to remedy this means allowing them to have space to do their job and learn from their mistakes.

Granted, there is a certain amount of management necessary to advance people in their careers and keep them aligned with company goals. But executives and managers must learn to let go and trust, or risk alienating their talent. While the line between effective, involved leadership and micromanaging can be thin; many employees have felt the effects at one point or another of a manager whose management style is more overbearing than hands-on and collaborative.

Micromanaging can show up in many forms, but most typically in bosses who dictate how employees complete tasks, question employees’ judgments, frequently ask for updates, and check on staff incessantly. Helicopter bosses hover over their employees and want to make all the decisions. Employees are not allowed to take risks or solve problems on their own.

When employees feel they are being put under a microscope, it can have a negative impact on their behavior and a vicious circle begins:

- They don't perform up to standard

- An inaccurate picture is created

- Their employee performance gets affected

- The micromanaging manager feels justified

- The cycle continues and gets worse

Why does the Helicopter Syndrome start?

Many helicopter bosses feel the need to hover in order to monitor efficiency, or to keep things on track, especially if an employee has erred in the past. But most micromanagers do so out of a need for control that often has more to do with their own control issues than the performance of their employees.

Often this need is rooted in growing up with over-controlling parents which can create the following:

- a sense of insecurity

- a fear of failure

- a need for control and power

- a need for perfection

- a need to be needed

Others simply don’t know any better; they may have been promoted into a manager role without proper training, or maybe that’s how they were managed. However, no matter where it started, the constant hovering is one of the most significant barriers to employee productivity. Nobody wants to work when their every move is scrutinized and there is a very thin line between being detail-oriented and obsessive!

Motivation comes from within

By micromanaging, people are only driven to perform in the hope that they will one day be left alone. In his book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, author Harry Chambers reports that 79 percent of those surveyed said they’d been micromanaged at one time or another.

A survey by Franklin Covey found that employees singled out micromanagement as the most significant barrier to productivity they faced, confirmed by a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that showed people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level. According to Daniel Pink, author of the bestseller book: Drive; while providing your employees with autonomy can sometimes feel scary, it is one of the key drivers of performance as motivation essentially comes from within. Pink found that for today’s knowledge workers who perform tasks requiring even rudimentary cognitive skill, there are three intrinsic motivating factors that affect performance: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy:This is the desire to be self-directed and no amount of money, benefits, or perks can provide this basic human need. When managers are involved in the thought process behind every employee decision and direct every action, they rob employees of the personal satisfaction of doing a good job that is attained by conquering a challenge through individual effort.

Mastery:This is only attained when people are allowed to work on a task autonomously for long enough (with periodic input and support from leaders) to succeed. The accompanying satisfaction is incredibly powerful, and that is why, according to Pink, employees will work so hard during their discretionary time. Both Wikipedia and the Linux operating system exist because people wanted to perform challenging, technically sophisticated work for no greater reward than personal fulfillment.

Purpose:The final piece of the motivation puzzle is for people to be able to work towards a purpose wherein they can find meaning. Instead of stifling this innate human need, company leaders can channel it by guiding employees towards the fulfillment of the company mission which could be to provide great products, change the world, or help individuals and organizations reach their highest potential.

Putting the Microscope Away

By allowing employees to engage in dialogue instead of telling them what to do, the message is clearly given that they are trusted to do the right thing.

When everyone on the team is communicating, they can hold themselves and others accountable, so essentially a whole team of managers is created without the confining aspects that damage morale or interfere with employee autonomy.

The object is to provide a healthy style of management that allows space and freedom versus overbearing micromanagement.

The following steps will allow managers to keep their fingers on the pulse without stifling creativity and performance:

- Involve people in the decision-making process by teaching them how to make

good decisions on their own.

- Schedule time to conduct lightweight weekly check-ins.

- Mentor and guide instead of dictating and directing.

- Coach people on how to solve problems by themselves.

- Learn to trust people, as trust will be reciprocated.

- Ask questions to understand what drives the team and what they would suggest

and why in any given circumstance.

- Try and find out what they need and how they feel.

- Develop the awareness to self-manage so that you can resist the need to


- Have the empathy to sense whether the impact you are having is positive or


Giving people the space to do their best work doesn’t mean letting go of the wheel completely as obviously it is still necessary to check in, to align everyone, to let them know that they are doing a good job or to support them in the areas where they feel stuck. But allowing space does mean understanding the fact that people will make mistakes, and some of those mistakes will be costly; but in order to allow for creativity, innovation and development people need to learn from their mistakes.

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