Maria is a self-described ‘Type A’ personality — she is driven, organized, and meticulous, and has impeccable time management skills. These and other qualities have made her a successful V.P. at an international commercial real estate firm.
Since her systems have served her so well in business, she was incredulous when she overheard her team venting about her when she returned early from a trip one morning.
“Ugh, Maria can’t even go on vacation without checking in constantly! I have 10 new emails in my inbox from her and it’s barely 8am. I’m supposed to be managing this Brazilian hotel project, but she has been stepping into every single decision. It’s making me crazy!”
“I just avoid her. That’s the only way I can get anything done,” added another.
Someone else chimed in, “Her poor kids! I bet they can’t even eat without being told how to chew. I’m giving my notice next week. My friend’s company is hiring and she said they give you autonomy over projects and are supportive, too. I can’t wait to be free to do my job without someone looking over my shoulder and constantly telling me what I’m doing wrong!”
After hearing this conversation, Maria slipped into her office and closed the door. True, she had been working a lot on vacation, and she had even cut the trip short to get back to the office. But she felt she had to do this because she didn’t trust the team to manage their high stakes projects well enough without her guidance. The only way she could guarantee things were done right was if she maintained regular oversight. If people couldn’t handle being managed, that was their problem. Without any more reflection, she brushed it off and got to work.
This outlook lasted for about a month, but Maria had to reassess when her annual review came up and the CEO expressed concern about the high staff turnover rate in her department. She praised the excellent quality of the work they were turning out, but also emphasized that employee satisfaction and retention were important to the company. She requested that Maria put some energy into figuring out ways to reverse the unusual attrition rate. Maria suddenly flashed back to the conversation she overheard a month ago and realized she would need help.
After hearing Maria’s story on our first coaching call, I could see all the signs of someone who was micromanaging her staff to protect herself. She described being terrified of looking bad if her team’s work wasn’t up to snuff, so she kept intervening in every area in spite of efforts not to do so. As a result, her team was behaving in ways that expressed disengagement and frustration, and her CEO was right– people were leaving more often and more suddenly than in other departments.
In order to help Maria understand her team’s perspective, I had her put herself in their shoes by asking her this question:
Think of a time when you were micromanaged by a boss. What did that feel like?
Maria shared, “Early in my career, I worked for a very controlling CEO. I felt insulted that he didn’t trust me to make decisions on my own. I resented having to check in constantly, and it was frustrating that we wasted time duplicating efforts or backtracking if something wasn’t done exactly the way he would do it. I had been hired for a management role, but in reality, he couldn’t let go enough to let me do that job. I left within a year to go where I could grow and feel respected.”
This exercise was eye-opening for Maria. When she took a moment to reflect on her experience being controlled and micromanaged all those years ago, she remembered that it was stifling and disempowering. With a new perspective on her own management style, Maria was ready for some tools to help her forge a new approach.
Imagine you give your team some autonomy and they make a big mistake that makes you look bad. Then describe how you would handle the situation. It’s important to try detaching yourself from the fear surrounding this situation when doing this exercise because it’s fear that drives your need for control. Look at it objectively.
This exercise was extremely challenging for Maria. She tried it a few times, but she kept getting stuck because she couldn’t fathom letting herself be embarrassed by a failure of her team, let alone consider how she would handle it. Since that approach clearly wasn’t working, she tried imagining a fellow V.P. in this scenario instead.
Her co-worker was naturally more easygoing than Maria, so by imagining her in this scenario, suddenly she could picture 20,000 floorboards being cut the wrong length — without shutting down herself. She could imagine this V.P. calmly acknowledging the mistake and moving forward with a solution. (Why not donate the wood to a local school being built? It would be a helpful gesture that would establish a genuine connection with the community. Plus, it would be good PR.)
Since this was so helpful in helping Maria detach from her fear, we gave her the task of spending more time with this co-worker so that she could glean a few techniques for letting things roll off when they went wrong.
Sometimes there’s no better way to learn a new skill than by observing others who are great at it and leaning on them for help when we get stuck.
Choose no more than five ground rules that you will be a stickler on with your team. Then let go of everything else.
This list was easy for Maria to generate. She was very clear on a few priorities.
- The customer is highly valued and should be treated accordingly in every interaction. This style is central to the success of their business.
- Every piece of writing they put out– from emails to brochures and project reports– would be highly polished. If people needed editing help, they could outsource.
- Managers should be detail-oriented in their weekly reviews and reports to her.
- Anyone should come to her or another manager if they had questions or doubts. It was better to ask than to make mistakes in projects where every detail had domino effects.
Once Maria had established some ground rules for herself and identified a positive example of how she wanted to operate, she had to decide how to begin implementing her new approach. She wisely realized that if she came into work one day with an entirely new approach, it would likely backfire because people were disengaged and would be mistrustful of her. The effect would be something like getting off a teeter-totter and sending the other person flying.
Any change would need to be gradual, so we made a plan for phasing out her oversight gradually.
Meanwhile she would open an honest dialogue about her style to set the stage for any eventual change.
What Maria Did
From day one, Maria decided to come clean with her team. She wanted to have an honest conversation with them to take ownership for her micromanagement tendencies. More importantly, she knew she would need help staying on track with her new efforts, so she wanted to enlist them to remind her when she was slipping back into old ways.
They all shared a few chuckles when Maria addressed the subject in a meeting. She tried to be honest and laugh at herself to lighten the mood and so that people would feel comfortable being honest too. It was easier than she expected because people were refreshed by getting it out in the open. They were able to quickly move on to a game plan.
She communicated the list of ground rules to the team, and they agreed that those were fair and that she should step in if they weren’t upholding them. In fact, they were happy to hold each other accountable as well, which took some of the pressure off Maria feel she had to do it all.
Then they talked about the ways in which she would begin handing over more control to her team. She wanted to start small, so they decided they would have weekly check-in meetings, but otherwise, she would let them work on their projects without popping up at their desks regularly. Emails would be harder, so she wanted to tackle that a bit later.
After a few months, the check-in meetings seemed like a good system, so she asked only to be copied on important emails but promised she wouldn’t address every one of them. It was important that she be kept in the loop. But unless she saw someone breaching one of the core priorities they had agreed on, she would let it go, even if it wasn’t exactly the course she would have taken.
Every Monday morning, she also revisited her priority ground rules to remind herself to step back on everything else. She kept a copy within sight on her desk. This was important because her impulse to control things and her fear would creep back in when things got stressful. She would start grasping for more control again, and it sometimes took a while for her to even recognize she was doing it. So having a regular visible reminder was crucial.
What Maria Learned and How She Changed Because of It
It’s been a year, and Maria is still engaged in the long process of detaching from the fear that drives her need to control things. Her impatient personality demands immediate results, but she has learned that letting go is an ongoing process that takes work, persistence, and time. She celebrates her successes regularly to keep her motivation up, and she continues to invests in the systems that support her progress.
The big surprise for Maria is that she feels less stressed overall than she did previously. She had expected constant anxiety to take over when she let go of control, but the outcome was actually the opposite. She has found it to be quite freeing when she doesn’t need to control every outcome!
She has also been able to do a better job driving innovation in the department, which is helping the group create a competitive advantage in the business.
While it will take a lot longer to see if she is truly reversing the high attrition trends that her CEO was concerned about, Maria’s team is the same group as it was a year ago– and that’s the first time she can say that in her ten years in the company. Maria has described feeling rewarded by her ability to retain her team and to see them grow professionally. She feels proud that they are gaining more competence, experience, and confidence. And it feels especially good to think that she is cultivating a healthier work environment for everyone.
Taking on a change of this magnitude is challenging and it takes bravery. Maria had to do the deep work of separating her tenacious ego from project outcomes at work. As a high achiever, she embraced this type of challenge because she knew that ultimately it would help her perform even better as a leader.
As with Maria, the drive to control outcomes is usually an old survival strategy — based on a belief that we are only worthy of love and respect if we demonstrate visible success.
If you find yourself stuck in any type of belief-driven pattern, you may want to consider a coaching session with Nahid. She’ll assist you in exploring some techniques like Maria used to help you move beyond fear and into a more empowering place in your business and personal life.
Written by Heather Rice in collaboration with Nahid Casazza for coaching content.