Management, hands-off leadership and the line


Jocko Willink

Time to read: 3 mins.

No employee wants to be micromanaged.  At the same time, offering employees complete freedom with little guidance can lead to chaos without the organisation’s vision and goals being realised.  The balance between micromanagement and hands-off leadership is the line that leaders walk on when managing teams.

Defining micromanagement

Micromanagement is an extreme form of management.  It involves not only trying to control the actions of others but even their thoughts. When micromanagement exists, people are passive and wait to be told what to do next.  After a while, it inhibits their personal growth. The initiative for action and deep thought fades. Eventually those individuals are not able to bring the value and innovation that organisations crave.  It’s easy to see why micromanagement has a negative association. It’s particularly frustrating for those who are accustom to working autonomously in high performing teams

Defining hands-off leadership

Hands-off leadership also comes with its own set of problems.  With hands-off leadership, leaders can fail to provide clear and specific direction as to what needs to be achieved.  This results in team members thinking too much and forming their own plans and strategies. Without proper guidance, the plans that are formed are outside of a teams boundaries, beyond their capabilities and the strategies rarely align with that of the organisation.  Without any coordination from the top, they move in different directions and disrupt and do not support other projects that are already in flight.

The line

The solution is to walk the line between management and hands-off leadership.  While there is no secret formula, finding the right balance comes from gauging individuals and the team as a whole. Here are some signs to look out for.  They can inform you on whether there is too much management or too much hands-off leadership.

Warning signs of micromanagement

  • There is a lack of initiative.
  • The team doesn’t seek out solutions to problems (the wait to be told about a solution).
  • In an emergency, the team does not mobilise and take action.
  • Bold and aggressive action becomes rare.
  • Creativity comes to a halt.
  • The team tends to stay within their own silo. They are not willing to step out ans coordinate with other teams out of fear overstepping.

Too much management (i.e. micromanagement) requires you to provide less detail and direction.  Instead, just describe the end state and why it is important.

Warning signs of hands off management

  • Lack of vision in what the team is trying to do.
  • Lack of coordination between between teams.
  • They have created their own initiatives that overstep the bound of authority.
  • The team is focused on priorities that are not aligned with the greater strategic vision.
  • There are too many people trying to lead and not enough people there to execute.

When there is not enough management (i.e. hands-off leadership) it requires that you give clear guidance.  Your team must understand where the boundaries are. You also need to assign roles, responsibilities and a chain of command.

Take some time to think about the warning signs as mentioned above.  Maybe you can see the signs within your own team, a team that you manage or more alarmingly within yourself. In either case, it may be time to bring these issue up to the leadership team or address the issue yourself.

 This article was inspired by the book The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

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