Directive Management

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“is a style of management that is characterized by an excessive need for control and extreme attention to even apparently trivial details”. Most professionals would accept the above definition as reasonable. At the crux of the issue is what constitutes “excessive” and “extreme. ” These words, in and of themselves, bring to mind visions of police brutality, prisoner interrogation, or worse. When used to describe a management style, most envision a tyrannical boss who has made it a personal goal to make the lives of his or her direct reports miserable.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many professionals have a visceral reaction to being micromanaged and tend to cite it as one of the worst management dysfunctions. In extreme cases, micromanagement is sometimes attributed to an underlying psychological disorder related to a need for control that is deep-seated and inherently resistant to change. While micromanagement is almost always wrong, directive management is appropriate in specific situations. More and more the label of “micromanager” is being incorrectly applied to anyone who has the audacity to direct the work of another.

The great majority of so-called micromanagers are not in fact micromanaging in any objective sense of the word, but simply well-intentioned individuals who are doing their very best to lead, motivate, direct and yes, even drive their direct reports to excel and perform to the best of their ability. This is especially true when underperforming employees receive the direct, detailed instruction required to be successful. In an effort to regain some sense of control over the situation, the direct reports may lash out or whine that the superior is micromanaging rather than acknowledge and address their underlying performance issues directly.

The “micromanager” label is often applied by those who do not have the perspective necessary to appreciate the overall context. I am not implying that a leader should revel in having power over others, but most organizations are structured in a hierarchy where everyone is subordinate to at least one other person for a good reason. With heavily matrixed organizations, you may even have to take direction from several different people at different times.

People at higher levels giving direction to people at lower levels is the way that work gets done in companies, the government, the military, organized religions, and pretty much any other group that produces anything of significance. Management style is situational and should be adjusted based upon time constraints, employee capabilities and the nature of the task at hand. Managers bear the burden of evaluating outputs and adjudicating the difference between flawless and careless, and must be given the latitude to provide the appropriate amount of guidance regardless of their employees’ personal preference for autonomy.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating and doing, is a primary challenge for new and seasoned leaders alike and must be constantly monitored and adjusted. Ultimately, the decision to engage in more or less directive management is made by the leader after rationally considering what is needed to ensure the short- and long-term success of the group in question, not the subordinate’s. The challenge is knowing when and how to provide the guidance and direction.