This is Part Two of my article covering the most common Bad Habits which make Leaders so Ineffective. In case you missed it, you can find Part One here.

We’ve already covered the first three Bad Habits (Egotism, Being Deaf to Others,  Misusing your Authority), so what about the remaining four?

“I’m the kind of manager that doesn’t believe that you micro-manage professionals. They should understand their responsibilities and carry those out responsibly”

Alphonso Jackson, former US public official
(1945 – )

Bad Habit 4: Micro-managing

Show me someone who has been managed, and I’ll show you someone who has been micro-managed.

This Bad Habit is so ubiquitous and easy to develop, it is almost the norm in large and complex organisations. That is to say, organisations full of many layers of managers tend to be hot beds of micro-managers.

It is so common I think simply because managers normally know how to do their employees’ jobs very well. They’ve often been the best performing in the team (which is why they were the one chosen for promotion). So naturally, they will be experts at the tasks and functions that they are now asking others to perform. And when, inevitably, someone is doing something differently (and often, not as effectively, or efficiently) they feel the urge to jump in and take over.

I was in this position many times, feeling frustrated as a manager at the way someone was doing something, and having to resist this burning urge to barge in and take control. Equally I’ve had my boss leap in when he wanted me to do something a certain way.

If you’ve ever been micromanaged, you will know that you found the experience irritating at best, and perhaps much worse. But why exactly is this such a Bad Habit?

Well, think of the signals it sends to the employee:

  • I don’t trust you to do this task well, so I’ll stick my nose in and take control
  • I know the best way to do this task, do it my way
  • I don’t like the way you are doing this, I’m taking over

All of which are disempowering and demotivating, and contribute to the engagement issues that I highlighted in Part One.

Employees usually perform better when leaders give them the responsibility, trust and autonomy to get on with their job. Without anyone interfering, they are solely accountable for the outcome and this fact usually brings out a higher level of ownership and performance.

But what about the costs to the leader of his micro-management antics? I can think of three issues here and I’m sure there are more.

First of all, by micro-managing, he is failing to fully sever the umbilical cord and force his people to be more independent and accountable. A leader who continually micro-manages limits the speed at which his people develop and become effective.

Secondly, by micro-managing, he limits the diversity of new ideas that might spring forth from a team which is more self-reliant. Maybe the boss doesn’t know everything, or the best way to get things done, but by micro-managing he will limit the emergence of better ways.

Thirdly, and most importantly, what better things could a micro-manager be doing with his time? Well, how about focusing on the truly important things that have a real impact on business development – all of which generally come under one term: strategy.

When you are lost amongst the trees, you can’t see the woods. Leaders need to get right the few big decisions every year which can really move the needle on their business. Making key hires, breaking into new clients, launching new products, entering new markets or regions, negotiating internally for more resources.

These strategic efforts require time, to think through and to plan and to execute. A leader lost in micro-managing will simply not be effective at prioritising the strategic decisions.

As a leader, results are much more important than the specific route taken to deliver them. Unless your people are genuinely incapable of delivering results (in which case, why haven’t you replaced them?), don’t obsess about how they deliver them. By all means, question, challenge and support, but don’t micro-manage.

“Don’t be a bottleneck. If a matter is not a decision for the President or you, delegate it. Force responsibility down and out. Find problem areas, add structure and delegate. The pressure is to do the reverse. Resist it.”

Donald Rumsfeld, US politician
(1932 – )

Bad Habit 5: Not Delegating

This is another insidious Bad Habit that tends to limit the effectiveness of Leaders.

When I worked in large financial organisation I saw the pressures that a hierarchy places on leaders at all levels to not delegate. Show that you are busy! Take on all the work! Show your team that you are in charge! Thinking back on my career, I can recall personally making bad decisions by not delegating, purely because I felt the need to hog the limelight with my manager.

In large organisations, managers often feel obliged to take on huge loads themselves, because they are desperate for the credit for getting something done. The culture can create a sense that, if you have not personally done something, you have not contributed and do not deserve a share of the spoils.

To illustrate the lunacy of this all-too-common backward thinking, consider how it works in the world of sport.

Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the most successful managers in the history of modern football, steering Manchester United to dozens of major titles over a quarter of a century. He deservedly gets all the credit for creating a dynasty in English football. No-one would question that.

Now, to state an obvious point, how many goals did he personally score? How many crucial penalties did he save? How many games did he personally win? None, of course. He was rightly responsible for the outcome of each game, but the task of actually winning each game was fully delegated to the eleven men on the pitch.

Had he chosen to keep the role of goal scoring to himself, for example, even in his younger days, it would would have been an unmitigated disaster (as it happens, Ferguson was a good striker in his playing career, but was by no means a star, playing less than ten times for his country).

“Your success is my success”

This point is so obvious, it actually seems daft just to spell it out like this. For Ferguson, the team’s success on the field in each game was his success – and of course he had to own the failures as well.

And so, for any leader in charge of people, while it might seem tempting to hang on to the big, meaty business functions that get all the glory, it is most likely a bad way to lead.

To ram home the point from a different angle, think about it from the perspective of your people. If you hold onto all the juicy, interesting stuff, you are really only throwing the breadcrumbs down to your team.

This leads to many of the issues that we discussed in Bad Habit 4 above. How on earth can your people grow if you don’t give them more responsibility? How can you stretch their skills and test their judgement? How can you see who can step up to the plate, and show their mettle as a future leader – to take your position when you are promoted (or fired!)?

How do they feel about your reluctance to give them more? “The boss doesn’t trust us /  we’re not good enough / I’m frustrated that I’m not being given a chance to step up” etc. More problems with employee engagement building up right there.

And of course if you’re not delegating tasks that your team could do, you have less time to focus your energy on the truly important things that only you can do – such as focusing on the strategic decisions that we discussed above. In other words, the sorts of activities that will mark you out for future success and promotion.

“I praise loudly, I blame softly”

Catherine the Great, Russian monarch
(1729 – 1796)

Bad Habit 6: Too much Criticism, not enough Praise

Let’s face it, humans are imperfect and employees are often making mistakes. These mistakes are rarely big enough to sink the ship, but nevertheless crop up regularly enough to irritate managers who are easily irritated.

Organisations are a little bit like pressure cookers, and when the heat is on, Leaders are often prone to blow their lids. If results are behind budget, deadlines are missed, or people are just careless, it is just too easy for Leaders to point the finger of blame and dish out criticism.

Sadly, the power and authority that come with a position of responsibility within a firm tend to translate too easily into the power to criticise, and too little into the power to praise.

I had a manager who, by many measures, was a very effective Leader. However, I will always remember him for an occasion when he truly excoriated me on a conference call with numerous other senior managers. Fair enough, I was not well prepared for the call, but it was his choice to deliver his criticism in such a withering and public fashion. Many others ‘enjoyed’ this kind of public execution at his whim.

At the same time, getting praise out of this manager for a job well done was like getting blood out of a stone. It was as if any job well done was simply the minimum expected level of performance, or happened thanks to the greatness of someone else’s guiding hand (his). It couldn’t possibly be because someone had simply done an outstanding job!

What’s more, these traits seemed to become even more exaggerated when there were witnesses. It was almost as if to be seen to deliver criticism was a sign of strong leadership, whereas delivering public praise was a sign of weakness.

So why is this such a Bad Habit, I hear you ask?

Well, the first reason is that great leaders truly understand – and in fact rely on – the value of motivating and engaging their troops all year round. They know that praise is a tool to reinforce positive behaviours, and is at its most effective when it is timely.

Performance related pay exists in most organisations, but it is not the only mechanism for saying “good job!”, and it is not timely. The bonuses come round usually only on an annual basis. If someone does something great which merits a larger bonus, why wait until year end to say well done?

The same goes for annual appraisals. If someone has done a great job, they’ll definitely get a great appraisal and possibly a promotion as well. But, again, is it necessary to wait that long before telling the employee what a great job they had done?

To be fair, giving praise can be a double edged sword if the meaning is taken wrongly, or what’s worse, used as a sandwich around a criticism. So there is a skill to giving praise effectively and leaders should be aware. Gush too much and it simply loses its value.

Equally, criticism, when delivered constructively, is a valuable learning tool for most people. I can recall a different manager who was very good at judging how to deliver criticism, in a way that had me listening and learning rather than shutting down and feeling I was under attack.

But in the final reckoning, if you are doling out too much criticism and too little praise, you’ll end up with a disenfranchised and rebellious workforce. And if you think that balance of criticism vs praise is justified, then perhaps you need to look in the mirror?

If your people are persistently messing up or under-delivering, maybe it’s their leader who is at fault?

“The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge is power. If you can control information, you can control people.

Tom Clancy, American novellist
(1947 – 2013)

Bad Habit 7: Controlling Information

The quote from Tom Clancy above is perhaps a little melodramatic, but the point is no less valid. If you work in a large organisation, it may not be like North Korea, but I guarantee you it will still be full of ambitious people running around playing power games.

The way that hierarchies function, a huge amount of information cascades down through the layers of managers to the foot soldiers. And for much of that information, the decision to share it with the troops can often be at the discretion of the manager concerned.

Why do leaders cling on to information?

Sometime there is a valid reason. Highly sensitive business information – be it related to a planned corporate action (takeover, merger etc), or something much less fun such as a plan to close down a business line, withdraw from a region, and deliver redundancies – has to be closely guarded while it is under consideration.

But a valid desire to withhold highly sensitive information often translates into a more general Bad Habit of holding back broad swathes of information.

This often comes in the form of a conscious decision. “I am senior and one way to validate my seniority is to withhold information from my juniors”. It is petty and small minded but still happens in a world where people in authority are always trying to justify their existence (often to themselves as well as to others).

The military have a valid “need to know” protocol. Not “nice to know”, but “need to know”. Lives are often at risk, and if it is not absolutely essential to farm information down an organisation, it doesn’t happen. But that necessarily strict filter in the military world is often applied in the business world.

Instead, think of what is “useful to know” as well as “need to know”. Share the insights you get from senior execs, share your business results in as much detail as possible, give the troops access to as much information as is reasonably possible.

In his recent book on innovative leadership “Turn the Ship Around“, David Marquet, even though he was in the US Navy, did in fact adopt a deliberate policy of distributing as much information as possible. He was transferring authority down the chain, and so he decided to give much more information as well, to equip his people to make much better decisions. And guess what, it worked a charm!

These are all conscious decisions on how much – or little – information to share. But what about the unconscious, or implicit ones?

Do you hold regular meetings where the explicit agenda is to disseminate information down to your direct reports? If those meetings never happen, you never have a forum where the troops can expect to have a regular update.

Maybe you yourself don’t get much information coming in your direction. What can you do to fix that? Ask your boss for more, of course. But what if he is a megalomaniac bent on keeping everything to himself? Then be resourceful – build relationships with others who seem to have easier access. Whatever it takes, really.

Either way, many of the Bad Habits discussed in this article will not be choked off if indeed the flow of information down the organisation is itself being choked off.

If information is the source of power, empower your people by giving them more of it. Only with more information can they make better judgements, take on more responsibility, ramp up their performance and help you transition into being a better Leader!

So, there we have the 7 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders:

  1. Egotism
  2. Being Deaf to Others
  3. Misusing Your Authority
  4. Micro-managing
  5. Not Delegating
  6. Too much Criticism, not enough Praise
  7. Controlling Information

Are there other, even worse Bad Habits which you see as a drain on the effectiveness of your Leaders?
Do you strongly disagree with my 7 Bad Habits?
Or do you just see them as inevitable and the price of life in an organisation?
Please share your thoughts on this article – all comments welcome.