Dear bosses: Give your team permission to ignore you (even if you’re not a micromanager)

Here’s something most managers don’t want to hear: According to research, only 5% of people say they finish their daily tasks every day. 

It’s your job to help your team do their best work. So why aren’t they?

We’d love to tell you this is due to poor time management, not properly prioritizing tasks, or even just getting distracted. But the truth is that the number one thing that gets in the way of your team doing great work is you. (Stay with us here!)  

Only 9% of managers think “too much email & chat” is a serious issue.

There’s a natural friction between how makers and managers run their day. But if you want your team to do their best work and keep you up-to-date, you need to stop being a micromanager and find a better way.

Here’s how.

Hard data on how micromanagers kill team productivity 

how to stop being a micromanager illustration

Your team is drowning in communication. And you’re most likely not helping.

Between update meetings, Slack conversations, emails, and every other collaborative tool, there’s little time to get any actual work done. 

Let’s use some simple data to explain what we’re talking about here:

In other words, there’s a good chance that your team is never getting into a state of deep focus throughout the day.

The amount of communication is definitely a problem (especially if you’re a micromanager). But most people aren’t getting an email or chat notification every 6 minutes during the day.

Instead, the real issue is the expectation to be always available.

Here’s one last data point to drive this home:

  • Every context switch (i.e. switching between apps, sites, or focus) kills 20% of your team’s productivity 

Put together, these stats tell a terrifying story.

Your team needs focus to do their best work.

But the more you communicate with them, or even just ignore those implicit expectations, the less time, attention, and focus they’ll have to get things done.

So what’s the solution?

The solution isn’t to stop communicating. It’s to set proper expectations.

Team communication has a Goldilocks problem.

Too much of it and you become a micromanager, get in the way of focus, and stress everyone out. But too little communication and your team won’t know what to prioritize, will get stuck on small problems, and be equally as stressed out!

Communication is a necessary part of running a successful team or company. That’s not going to change, especially now that so many people are working remotely. 

What does need to change–if you want your team to be focused–is your approach to communication. 

The most important question you should ask as a manager is: Why does my team feel compelled to check email or chat every 6 minutes? 

Most people aren’t getting messages that often. So why do they self interrupt and stop themselves from getting into flow? 

The issue is that we’ve trained our teams to value responsiveness over focus

And probably most telling is that 76% of people have never had a conversation with a manager or coworker about communication expectations.

That’s a lot of data. So let’s put it in simple terms:

Your team feels compelled to always be available because no one has told them otherwise. 

Expectations are the crux of almost every workplace issue. When you understand what your team thinks they need to be doing, you’re in a better position to help them change inefficient processes, break bad habits, and feel comfortable focusing on important work.

Yet few people do the work to explain and create policies for how to communicate properly during the workday. 

When it comes to communication, setting clear boundaries and expectations around response time is one of the most powerful tools for giving your team more time and more focus. 

Need help understanding where your time goes each day? Try RescueTime for free for 14 days and take back control of your time!

How to give your team permission to ignore you (and still get work done)

micromanager checking computer

So you’ve decided to try and give your team room to breathe during the day but you’re scared of what will happen when you stop checking in.

That’s perfectly normal.

But with a few clear processes, you’ll be able to give them focus and stay in-the-loop on important projects.

Step 1: Understand if you’re a micromanager

It’s your job to check in and make sure your team has the resources and knowledge they need. But it’s not always easy to know when your check-ins slip from helpful to harmful. 

No one sets out to be a micromanager. But if you think you might be falling into that category, here are a few micromanager red flags to watch out for courtesy of executive coach Muriel Maignan Wilkins.

Do you:

  • Want to always know where all your team members are and what they’re working on?
  • Ask for frequent updates on where things stand?
  • Ask to be cc’d on emails?
  • Laser in on the details and take great pride and/or pain in making corrections?

If this sounds like you, you’ve most likely slipped into micromanager territory.

Step 2: Question your own expectations around responsiveness

Expectations trickle down from the top. Before you can start changing your team’s communication culture, you need to understand your own motivations. 

Why do you feel the need to check in with your team all the time? (Or to not be vocal about their need to focus over being responsive?) 

RescueTime‘s Communication reports show you how much and how often you’re typically using email, chat, and other tools.

In many cases, it could just be the anxiety and stress that comes from not knowing what’s going on. 

As Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ writes

“The irony of being the boss is that the higher up you move in the hierarchy, the less direct control you have. This loss of control often comes as a shock to bosses and that, in turn, sparks their anxiety.”

One counter-intuitive technique that works to calm this anxiety is to push your micromanager style of thinking to the extreme.

For example, is your team not sending hourly updates because they’re deeply focused? Or is it because they’re off playing video games or actively sabotaging the company? 

If you honestly think it’s the latter, you’ve got bigger problems to address.

Step 3: Create a communication “runbook” for your team 

With your own expectations and micromanager anxieties in check, it’s time to create a new communication culture. 

You might think your team “just knows” how to communicate, but I think the stats say otherwise. Instead, you need clear rules and processes for how and when to communicate. 

A communication “runbook” is a living document that outlines expectations and how to deal with certain scenarios. Here’s what you might include in your communication runbook:

  • Times when everyone should be available on Slack/Zoom for meetings and catchups
  • The expected response time for emails
  • What channels you’re going to use for what kind of communication (i.e. if something is truly urgent, which medium should it be in?)
  • When people are most likely to be doing “Deep Work” and shouldn’t be disturbed
  • If/when it’s ok to go into DND mode, quit your communication apps, or be unreachable

This can feel a bit overkill. But remember: your team has been trained to kill their own focus. You need to be ultra-clear that it’s ok to do the opposite. 

Step 4: Talk to everyone about changing their norms (because you’ll most likely get pushback) 

Even though these changes are good for everyone, you’ll probably get some pushback.

Change is hard. People get stuck in their ways (even if they know they’re negative). So it’s important to explain that these are rules, not suggestions, and explain why they matter. 

As Adam Grant writes in Harvard Business Review:

“Resetting norms regarding when and how to initiate e-mail requests or meeting invitations can free up a great deal of wasted time.”

It’s not just getting rid of wasted time, however. Resetting norms gives your team more productive and focused time so they can feel less stressed and engage with their work. 

In fact, new research published by the Harvard Business School showed that the most productive and creative teams communicate intermittently. Not all the time. 

As the study’s authors wrote:

“During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during longer periods of silence everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”

Step 5: Lead by example

You’ll never change your team’s communication culture if you don’t lead by example.

This means no more late-night (or early morning) emails and respecting the rules that you’ve set out. Even if you don’t expect an immediate response to your messages, your team will still expect and stress out about them.

Researchers have discovered a phenomenon called Anticipatory stress where employees stress out because they assume they’ll be contacted at all hours. As the researchers explain:

“It is not the amount of time spent on work emails, but the expectation which drives the resulting sense of exhaustion.”

Change the expectations and give your team the time, focus, and work-life balance they deserve.

If you’re still having issues stepping away from micromanagement, remember this one fact

If you can’t step away for the sake of your team’s mental health, then remember this. Researchers have found that a focused hour is up to 500% more productive than one where you’re being interrupted or distracted. 

Even giving your team permission to ignore you for 2-4 hours a day can give them the time and space they need to make real progress and feel good about the day.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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