#CEOs should not copy Mrs May if micromanagement means micromanagement; she and they might reread #Chilcot and trust more…

Prime Minister May is, allegedly, a micromanager. According to press reports, she alone makes critical decisions, fails to communicate current government policy to the embarrassment of officials, and controls conversations between her ministers and the Press. If true, this behaviour should concern us for three reasons.

First, it’s dangerous. It creates grave risk if she makes the wrong call. Second, it creates an environment in which her team can’t thrive, the opposite of what good leaders should do. Third, it gives a bad example to other leaders, especially CEOs some of whom are looking for every excuse to justify their meddling with their directors.

The risk argument alone should be an incentive for her to consider changing her behaviour. If not convinced then she should reread the Chilcot Report into the decision on invading Iraq which explicitly criticised the “sofa-style” decision-making that led to that decision. I wrote a blog after the publication of the report, aimed at CEOs entitled: Business leaders should heed #Chilcot criticism of “sofa” style decision-making – the dangers of which are self-evident.

Concerning morale, the first responsibility of any leader is to create an environment in which the people who work for and with them can thrive and do their best work. Work satisfaction is impossible if they are not trusted to do the jobs they are paid to do. They justifiably feel controlled and stifled. But to be fair to Mrs May and micromanaging CEOs their intention is not, I suspect, to control others. That’s the collateral damage of an inability to trust. Control is not the primary motivator.

I’ve worked with many CEOs and other leaders, all micromanagers to a greater or lesser degree. But if they could tell the truth, they would say that they are exhausted by their own micromanaging. It eats up their time and saps their energy. But they feel powerless to change, not least because some of their micromanaging behaviour helped them to climb the greasy pole.

But the problem with leadership is that it’s impossible to lead without trusting the people you lead. So how do you learn to trust? Well, a good start would be to acknowledge why you don’t trust people in the first place. Experts tell us that our distrust starts in our formative years. If we were not trusted or allowed to fail as children, it’s unlikely that we will find it easy to trust anyone in adult life.

But if Mrs May, micromanaging CEOs and other leaders were to meddle just ten times less out of every hundred actions, that would be just 10% less micromanaging. That’s small change, I know. But I also know that the impact of small changes is huge. I have case study evidence that small changes in micromanaging behaviour lead to happier and more efficient teams, yielding more time for leaders to focus on leadership and, crucially, to give them time to dig deeper to find their hidden potential. Hidden because they weren’t leading.

Finally, the issue of giving bad example is important. Mrs May is a role model whether she likes it or not. So are CEOs and other leaders. Their underlings watch and copy them. But they too struggle with trust. If you are the top of the tree your distrust is across or down. But if you are a follower you won’t trust upwards if your boss doesn’t trust you. The result is that both leader and follower needs are not met, risks increase and everyone misses their targets.

The trigger for incentivising behavioural change is a belief that you might get your needs met. But if you want your needs met, the first step is to tell someone what you need. However, if you don’t have a track record of being able to negotiate your needs productively, you are unlikely to risk the vulnerability required to ask. This is a vicious circle.

Do we know what Mrs May needs? Has she told anyone? She has told us about actions. Not feelings or needs. When she says “Brexit means Brexit” she means that the vote will be implemented. But she doesn’t say how she feels about making that happen and what she needs to execute it. She must be feeling afraid that she won’t get what she needs if she trusts people. She may be right. She may be wrong. But we all need her to succeed.

So the first step for her and CEOs is to articulate what they need and ask, not force, compliance. They may be pleasantly surprised that if they allow themselves to be vulnerable by risking the clear articulation of requirements that someone might meet them. Vulnerability sends a signal of trust. The greatest leaders show vulnerability. In doing so they may, as one of my former bosses was fond of saying wryly, be in grave danger of success.

Ciaran Fenton

September 2016

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