From resistance to aspiration

Details make perfection
In the previous blog we discussed the blessings of micromanagement: if you want to be the best, it pays to go into great detail. “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail,” said Leonardo da Vinci, and that also applies to top-quality products and services.

So micromanaging products and services pays off, but micromanaging people does not: it distracts and undermines self-confidence. Moreover, nobody likes it when people are constantly told in detail what to do and how. People thrive when they can indulge in a task that suits their talents and ambitions, with a certain degree of autonomy, in good cooperation with colleagues.

The micromanager’s urge to control creates resistance. Because people feel affected in their autonomy, while they want to have the feeling that they are masters of their situation. In addition, people under micromanagers experience insufficient recognition. And that is a basic social need: people want to be seen for who they are and what they can do. Lack of recognition also causes resistance.

Out of the stranglehold
How do you get out of the stranglehold of the urge to control? How can you achieve your goals without the resistance that a micromanager typically evokes? Without giving yourself and others the feeling that you have to interfere ‘really on everything’ in order to get the work done properly? How do you involve people in your ambition for quality and results?

In micromanagement, the self-confidence of team members is undermined because they experience insufficient confidence in their qualities. The primary task of management is to build that trust. You do this by being explicit about the qualities you value in your team members and the potential you see in them. One of the most influential thinkers in the field of leadership, Stephen Covey, once summed it up like this: “Leadership is communicating the value and potential of people so clear that they will eventually see for themselves.”

Whenever I work with others I experience how true this statement is and how much people need to be confirmed in their qualities and potential. We live in a society that is disproportionately focused on mistakes and imperfections. More than on potential. Early on in primary school, children learn how much “mistakes” their work contains. But which perspective is better for self-confidence, “two wrong” or “twelve right”? Whenever I ask people about their qualities, I always notice that they are much better able to name their ‘bad’ qualities and ‘weaknesses’ than to talk about their strengths and potential. But when we only talk about their talents, possibilities and ambitions, the relationship transforms: people feel understood, seen and recognized and a better energy is created. The energy of trust.

At team level, the principle is the same as with individuals. I regularly apply the following to teams I work with to build trust and engagement: after we have developed a strategy or change plan, I ask the team members to imagine it is five years later. And that all ambitions and goals from the plan have been achieved. Then I ask the people to write an email to each other, also dated five years later, in which they describe three things:

  • why they are so proud of the organization;
  • what they value in each of the other team members;
  • what they value most in themselves.

It is arranged in such a way that everyone receives all emails at exactly the same time. They are invariably full of positive energy, ambition, enthusiasm and appreciation. The potential that people see together is very tangible1. When the team members have done this, there is always a noticeable increase in energy: there is more appreciation, trust and fun. And that is reflected in the cooperation and better results.

1 This approach is inspired by Benjamin Zander’s YouTube lecture “How to give an A” and the book “The Art of Possibility”, which he co-wrote with his wife Rosamunde (Penguin Books, 2000).

Through such a way of collaborating and forming ambitions – primarily based on possibilities and appreciation – you unleash an aspiration in the team. The aspiration to realize ambitions together, to realize goals, to grow. Aspiration is a much more powerful source of energy than resistance. Resistance lowers the team’s energy, atmosphere and agility. Aspiration increases energy, enthusiasm and decisiveness.

Now the team is ‘on the road’ to realize its ambitions. It is important to maintain the energy and to allow both the individual employees and the team to come into their own. In addition, they benefit more from a facilitating manager who supports, advises and coaches them than from a controlling micromanager. But managers who have arrived at this point will have little interest in the arduous path of micromanagement, which saps too much energy and fun from all involved.

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The Blessings of Micromanagement

Micromanagement can be defined as a management style characterized by the need for extreme control and attention to detail. In general, this style has a negative connotation, especially because the attention to details gives the employees of the manager in question a constant pressure – ‘is ​​it never good enough’, ‘is it never finished’? – and a perceived lack of freedom.

Extreme attention to detail also carries the risk of losing sight of the big picture and more important priorities. And, last but not least: work as such does not become more pleasant when people are ‘micromanaged’.
Is there nothing positive to report about micromanagement? It just depends how you look at it…

Eleven Madison Park
There is an interesting documentary series on Netflix: Seven Days Out. This 2018 series documents the events – and the accompanying excitement, setbacks and dramas – seven days leading up to a major event in sports, fashion and aerospace, among others. One of the episodes is devoted to Eleven Madison Park, at that time voted the best restaurant in the world and in possession of three Michelin stars. The owners, Chef Daniel Humm and General Manager Will Guidara explain that they are driven by the ambition to be the best restaurant in the world. The documentary records how they work in great detail to prepare the restaurant, seven days before its reopening after a renovation. Halfway through the episode, Guidara gives his view on their quality ambitions: “We see excellence as thousands of perfectly executed details. If you can focus on every single detail, and not on the whole, then you start to get somewhere.” To illustrate this, Guidara gives a concrete example: “Every plate in the restaurant is placed in such a way that the logo at the bottom of the plate is turned towards you”. In such a way that if you turn the plate over, you see the logo of the tableware neatly upright. Will Guidara says about this: “Does anyone notice? No. Why does it matter? It means that when we put up signs, we do it with more intention .

Intention as a driver for quality and perfection to a level that no one notices anymore. Except maybe that one person wondering what the tableware brand is… anyway, the micromanagement of the owners of Eleven Madison Park has created one of the most successful restaurants in the world.

Pixar Studios
Pixar Studios is also a good example of micromanagement. Pixar is one of the most successful film studios and an organization in which creativity and quality are embedded in the organizational culture. All aspects of every film are meticulously scrutinized and produced, from idea to realization. For example, production teams hold daily review meetings in which the development of an animation film is discussed. The team members are expected to assess the work of their colleagues in great detail and without restraint: what is wrong, what is missing, what is unclear in the animations? And every few months, the progress of production of the entire film is reviewed higher up in the organization. According to the same principle: what is not good, what is missing, how can it be improved? All this with one goal: “to make a great film, with great people”. Because that’s Pixar’s mission. And with results, because Pixar’s films are all blockbusters and have won many awards.

Thrive because of micromanagement
How come in these examples the teams and organizations do not perish because of micromanagement, but thrive because of it? That’s because micromanagement focuses on the quality of products and services – not the way people do their jobs.

Conscious culture
This requires a corporate culture in which it is clear to everyone that the quality of the end result is what matters most. Every aspect of the product or service is evaluated in detail and (continuously) improved. It also means a high degree of psychological safety: it is safe for people to speak out and experiment. Or to make mistakes. “Fail early, fail fast.” is one of Pixar’s mottos, because when it’s safe to make mistakes, progress is made faster.

You can micro-manage things, but not people
Quality is about details. And the higher the quality ambitions of your organization, the more attention should be paid to ever smaller details. In the case of a restaurant, it may concern the placement of the crockery, in an animation film it may be about the detail of a shadow in the drawing. Because extreme attention to the details of a product leads to extreme quality.

That is the area where micromanagement pays off. This can only be done sustainably in a working environment in which employees are involved in the ambitions of the organization and at the same time can give substance to their work in their own way. In other words: a thousand perfectly executed details give you distinctive character. People give up on people who try to micro-manage them. But things can micro-managed just fine.

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