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Crucial Conversations QA

Micromanaging Revisited

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I read with interest the Q&A posted 9/8 (“Being Micromanaged”) and handled by Joseph Grenny.

I’d like to reverse the scenario and ask what should the manager who believes that his/her direct report is “wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability” do? As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. With one employee I recently approached this crucial conversation perhaps too delicately. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Thank you,

Dr. Delicate

A Dear Dr. Delicate:

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimized collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement–from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person. The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as: “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

2. Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”: a choice where we see only two options–both of them bad. (e.g., “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.”) In reality, there is often a third, better alternative: You can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?” Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship…you can get both.

3. Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation. When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened–I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Vague Feedback

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

The director of the agency I work for has decided (after three years) to call us in every month or so to discuss what’s going on in our departments and the agency in general. I’ve had two of these conversations with her. What it turns out to be is, “You’re doing a great job” (no details), then focusing on a “problem.” She tells me what she sees as a problem, tells me what agency policy is, and vaguely tells me how to handle it. She never asks my side of the problem, never asks how I currently handle the issue (exactly the way she says it should be handled!), and leaves me feeling unsupported and on the outside. I’ve been coming up with some ideas for these conversations such as asking her to define certain words she uses to describe me and find out if she means them positively or negatively–it’s often difficult to tell since she has a perpetual negative look on her face and in her tone.


Anxious and Confused

A Dear Anxious,

I’m glad you asked this particular question because it brings up an issue that we’ve explored in some depth. The challenge in this case is: Which problem or problems do you deal with, and how do you start the conversation?

1. Which problem?

This is a classic case of one set of circumstances serving up a variety of problems–all related, and yet distinct and different. Let’s look at the array you mention in your description.

-It’s been three years without feedback.
– Your boss’s choice of words is vague, often leaving you wondering exactly what she’s talking about–with both your problems and successes.
– You’re not sure how she defines certain terms.
– Her tone and look are perpetually negative.
– She fails to involve you in problem solving, providing only her view.
– At the end of the conversation you don’t feel supported.
– She doesn’t recognize that you’re currently solving problems in the way she suggests.

In addition to the issues you allude to in your question, you may also have doubts about her motive (I know I would). Is she trying to help you? Or is she following a recent mandate, using the time to exert her influence, doing her best to show off in your presence, etc.?

As you try to choose from this rather long and varied list, ask yourself: What bothers you the most? What do you complain about when you go home at night? In short, what do you really want? This last question helps you select from the various options (you can’t discuss all of the issues in one sitting).

My guess is that while it may help clarify matters if your boss defines her terms, this is a far less important issue than several others you mentioned and wouldn’t be the best place to start. The fact that she fails to ask for your input and doesn’t recognize your current skills sounds far more important and both problems may be contributing to your feeling unsupported. Clarifying her words might help a little and would certainly be easier to discuss, but isn’t likely to get you what you want.

So, think about the various issues, talk about the component parts with a friend, ask yourself what you really want, and then reduce the problem to a single sentence–forcing yourself to get at the core issue.

2. How do you start the conversation?

Choosing what to talk about is only the beginning. Now you have to talk. Before you open your mouth, keep a good thought. Don’t enter the conversation feeling angry, smug, or superior. Most of us aren’t good enough actors to hide our underlying emotions. If you hold court in your head and find your boss guilty, the verdict will come out in your tone of voice and choice of words. Your nasty conclusions will make your boss defensive and put you at risk. Make it safe for both yourself and your boss by assuming that she’s simply unaware of the problem and doing her best. Then start by asking for permission–after all, this is your boss. For example: “I’m wondering if we can take a few minutes to talk about the new feedback process.”

When you’ve got permission, start by describing the problem. Don’t start with your conclusions or feelings. Both are controversial and typically cause others to become defensive. Start with the facts. For example: “In our last discussion you pointed out a problem and then made a suggestion on how to solve it. The last two times you’ve offered suggestions, I was already doing exactly what you proposed. It left me wondering if you have an accurate view of what I do and how I do it.” Then pause and wait for your boss’s response.

Now, a lot more will follow as the conversation unfolds, but this forum doesn’t allow for a complete handling of the confrontation. For now, let’s assume that you want to start off on the right foot and to do so you have to do two things well: select the right problem and then describe it in a way that makes it safe for the other person. Do these two things well and you’ll be heading down the right path in a way that will likely lead to a healthy confrontation.

Good luck and may all your conversations be effective ones.


Crucial Conversations QA

The Boss is a Bully

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My boss is out of control. He fabricates facts to support his personal agenda. He applies or ignores corporate policies at his whim. He makes blatant displays of favoritism–punishing some employees severely while overlooking others who do the exact same thing. He accuses employees falsely, and then creates evidence if needed to support his claims.

He has taken the Crucial Conversations class and uses it as a means of attack. He starts with “This is a crucial conversation,” and then follows with a litany of insults and accusations, omitting any attempt to make things feel safe.

Our institution has no sanctioned course of action where a supervisor can present a complaint. Several have gone to his superior and gotten nowhere. How can we use Crucial Conversations skills to better remedy a situation where honesty and truth are considered a secondary priority?


Nearly Hopeless

A Dear Nearly Hopeless,

Sounds like the crucial conversation you need to have is with yourself. The best service you could offer to yourself is to find a different job. And the best service you could offer to your organization is to hold a very candid exit interview once you’ve lined up the next job. Unfortunately, weakness at crucial conversations is not confined to direct reports. Bosses are just as inclined to avoid them at all costs.

Now, I’m making two important assumptions–but provided my assumptions are correct, the primary problem here is that your boss’s superior is AWOL from his or her job. When an employee takes the enormous risk of giving skip-level feedback (i.e., going over her boss’s head to share concerns about her boss), the manager has a special obligation to protect the employee and to respond vigorously to the concerns. Clearly that has failed here. Now, in fairness, I need to share the big assumptions I’m making. I’m assuming that:

1. You and others have made a skillful attempt to give your boss feedback about his chronic untrustworthiness.

2. You and others have been skillful in how you communicated your concerns to your boss’s boss.

If you’ve done reasonably well at both of these, then you have–in my opinion–discharged your conscience marvelously and are left only with the obligation to move yourself to a healthy work situation. I know that can be a tough decision to implement, but it should be a fairly easy one to make. As long as you stay where you are you are enabling your boss’s bad behavior by robbing him of the natural consequences of it. The natural consequence of bad leadership is the loss of good talent. But even more important, you are falling short of your obligation to place yourself in environments where you can flourish and serve best.

I wish you the best in both creating better circumstances and positively influencing your current boss through the change.

Best regards,