Micromanagement Disengages Employees

Micromanage, v.t., - to manage or control with excessive attention to minor details.

The October 21 Made2Measure post (Employee Engagement: Managing the Millennial Generation in the Workforce), explored how the employee engagement survey developed by the National Center for State Courts and CourtMetrics, for both trial courts (see CourTools Measure 9 ) and for appellate courts (see Measure 7 at http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddc3k4gt_14cpvjn2c2), can help court managers engage “millennials” – a new crop of young people in the work force who were born between 1980 and 2001.

This post explores how the survey may help to reverse the negative effects of micromanagement.

The survey uses a self-administered questionnaire to assess the engagement of the court's workforce and the quality of the relationships among its employees, especially those between managers and subordinates. It asks respondents to rate their agreement with each of 20 statements on a five-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

The measure produced by the survey – percent of engaged employees – is not only a proxy for a vital sign of a court’s health, it is actionable immediately in terms of specific improvements in employee engagement and performance. As noted in the October 21, 2008 post dealing with the millennial generation of court employees, effective performance measures like employee engagement tend to drive success. They are clear, focused, and actionable. They serve both as incentives and practical tools for improvement. The very act of measurement – asking the right questions -- itself will trigger positive action.

Micromanagers Diminish Employee Performance

How can the results of the survey help court managers avoid micromanagement and to loosen the tight and unnecessary control that robs subordinates of the freedom to find solutions to problems? Employees are often best suited to identify problems and to find solutions. Everyone loses if they’re discouraged from doing so.

A micromanager delves into too much detail, interrupts subordinates at every turn, and interferes with work getting done. Rather than giving subordinates the responsibility and freedom to do their jobs, micromanagers constantly look over their shoulders and closely monitor every move they make.

This obsession with detail and control, and the unwillingness to trust, causes resentment, affecting staff performance in a negative way. It produces the opposite of engagement - disengagement - a diminished emotional connection that a subordinate feels for his or her department, or the court as a whole, that influences him or her to exert much less discretionary effort to achieve success.

Using the Survey Results

Employee engagement survey items to watch for:

1. I understand what is expected of me.
2. I am kept informed about matters that affect me.
3. I am able to do my best every day.
8. I have the opportunities to express my opinion about how things are done in my division.
11. I am encouraged to try new ways of doing things.
14. I feel valued by my supervisor based on my knowledge and contributions to my department, unit or division.
15. I feel free to speak my mind.
19. I am treated with respect.

These items of the Employee Engagement Survey appear particularly sensitive to problems of micromanagement.

In a recent consulting visit I made to a large urban court, an assistant civil case coordinator confessed to me that he had responded with “disagree” or “strongly disagree” to all of these all eight items when he completed the latest survey done by the court. Particularly illuminating for me was his revelation that he strongly agreed that the court is respected in the community (Survey Item # 9) and that he still was proud that he worked in the court (Survey Item # 20).

Though he did not use these exact words, it was clear to me that he was no longer emotionally connected to his work in the civil division, and no longer was willing to exert much discretionary effort to help the court succeed. Sure, he would do as he was told, but not much more. “Why bother,” he told me.

“I really don’t know what he wants anymore,” he complained about his immediate boss. “He interrupts my conversations with my staff, points out little mistakes all the time, lectures me, and makes mundane decisions for me several times a day,” he said. “I’ve stopped making suggestions because I’m just going to get shot down.”

Is this employee’s disengagement an isolated case? Is it indicative of the all the employees in the civil division? The entire court?

It turns out that the assistant civil coordinator was speaking for his entire division. The division was underperforming relative to the court as a whole. As a proxy for the health of the division, this measure did not look good.

The civil division’s average scores (percent of employees who agreed or strongly agreed) were the lowest scores among all nine divisions of the court, as was the overall average across all 20 items. The responses to the seven items noted above were particularly at odds with those of the rest of the court.

It turned out that the director of the civil division already had some insight into the problems he faced. He knew that his staff was growing complacent and that his increasing heavy handed intervention was not making things better. He just didn’t know what to do.

It took a push from the court administrator to get him to loosen his control over his staff. Together, during a regularly scheduled meeting focused on performance measurement and management, they reviewed the survey results, analyzing each item relative to the court as a whole and the other divisions. The items with the lowest relative scores formed the basis for breaking his habit of micromanagement.

The civil division’s low score on Item # 11(I am encouraged to try new ways of doing things), for example, prompted the court administrator and the director of the civil division to formulate several strategies for giving the civil division employees more decision-making power and encouraging questions and suggestions. The court administrator encouraged the civil division director to speak to the director of a division with the highest score on this item and question her about practices that she uses to give her employees more decision-making authority.

Insight and Understanding

The performance measurement and management process, like the dialogue of the court administrator and his director of the civil division, uses numbers to provide understandable and comparative results, but it is ultimately not about the numbers. It is about providing perceptions, understanding and insight. In the final analysis, it is not the measurement results that are important but rather the questions that the results compelled the court administrator and the civil division director to confront:

1. How well is the civil division doing?
2. What is the division’s current performance level relative to a baseline? What is the current performance level compared to the court’s established upper and lower “controls” (e.g., performance targets, objectives, benchmarks or tolerance levels)?
3. How will it perform over time (trends)? Is performance better, worse or flat? How much variability is there? Are the same effects occurring in other divisions? The court as a whole?
4. Why is this happening (analysis and problem diagnosis)? What happened to make performance decline, improve or stay the same. What are some credible explanations? Is micromanagement the problem?
5. What should the civil director attempt to do to improve performance levels (planning)?
6. What actions should be started, continued or stopped as a result of what the measurement results reveals (strategy)? What should be done to improve poor performance, reverse a declining trend?
7. What performance targets and goals should be set for the future? (goal setting)?

The willingness and capacity to address these questions systematically and continuously -- for core court performance measures like employee engagement -- and to learn and to adapt on the basis of the results, are hallmarks of a high-performing court.

For more on employee engagement, see also:

Employee Engagement: Managing the Millennial Generation in the Workforce, Made2Measure, October 21, 2008
Measuring and Managing Encounters of Court Users and Court Employees, Made2Measure, February 24, 2008
In Praise of Employee Satisfaction, Made2Measure, November 22, 2006
Friendships in the Workplace Good for Court Performance, Made2Measure, August 14, 2006.

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