How to Help (Without Micromanaging)

Julianna Pillemer headshot
By Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer
“Micromanagement” is a dirty word in today’s workplaces. Bosses who intervene too often or too extensively in their subordinates’ activities get a bad reputation, and most forward-thinking organizations have come to value employee autonomy more than oversight. Research shows that people have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and that it can erode interpersonal relationships. Even the U.S. Army general George S. Patton, a leader in one of the most traditional command-and-control groups in the world, understood the danger of micromanaging: He famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Managers shouldn’t be completely laissez-faire, however, especially when subordinates aren’t colocated, as is the case for many during the global Covid-19 pandemic. People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice or encouragement; they need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues—and providing it can be challenging without opportunities for serendipitous encounters in a physical office. Extensive research indicates that pervasive helping in an organization correlates with better performance than letting employees go it alone does. So how can you give subordinates the assistance they need without undermining their sense of efficacy and independence?

Over the past 10 years we’ve been studying how leaders effectively offer help without being perceived as micromanagers. We have observed and talked to people inside various companies, including a prominent strategy consulting firm (we’ll call it ConsultCo) where we interviewed partners who were named by top management as exceptional hands-on leaders. At a design consultancy that’s well-known for its helping culture (pseudonym: GlowDesign), we conducted a large-scale qualitative study using daily diaries and in-depth weekly interviews with help givers and receivers. And we’ve run two behavioral experiments in the laboratory, exploring how 124 groups responded to differently timed interventions when asked to make decisions about opening a fictitious restaurant.

Read the full Harvard Business Review article.

Julianna Pillemer is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU Stern School of Business.