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Just checking in? Check yourself.

September 12, 2019

There’s nothing worse than a manager “stopping by” to see how you’re doing when it’s an obvious pretext for micromanaging your work. Nowadays, of course, the “stop by” has gone digital. There are oh so many ways to micromanage people in the modern world, on video, by text, chat, through Slack or Teams, and more. The irony is that while that micromanagement is completely obvious to the person being micromanaged, their manager often fools themselves into believing it was something else.

What’s also true, as much as it might be hard to believe from the recipient’s perspective, is that the manager or leader does actually care. They simply don’t know how to express it very well. Like all communication that we try to do quickly, it’s in the delivery where what started as a caring impulse turns to something demoralizing. 

Here’s how to do a check-in without it feeling like you’re micromanaging.

1. First, separate your check-ins by kind. Let your team know, in advance, that there are two types of check-ins you’re going to do. Sometimes you are interested in the status of a project or task and a quick ask is necessary. Let’s call that a tactical check-in. The other type of check-in is what we can call a personal check-in. It’s about how someone is doing or feeling, it’s you actively caring about the well-being of the people on your team. By letting your team know that you’re going to do both as part of your job, you create space in their mind to let the personal check-in be just that. 

2. Next, start tracking your check-ins. Now that you’re separating the tactical from the personal, it’s time to track and unpack them. If you’re like most managers you’re running at a 5:1 ratio; meaning you're doing five tactical check-ins for each one personal check-in. The goal of tracking is to get underneath the impulse to micromanage, realize what’s happening is that there’s a conversation you missed, connect with the human in front of you, and reverse that ratio. Things you’ll want to track:

  • What do I want to ask?
  • Why do I feel the need to ask?
  • How can I take responsibility instead?
  • When am I going to talk to them about it?

Try not to cheat by immediately jumping to what you think are the right answers. Instead, use this as your own space for reflection. Once you get 4-5 real examples you’ll start to see some themes emerge. Here’s a template you can use.

3. Then, replace the stop-by with a clarify. Bring the results of your tracking to your next 1:1 and use the insights to guide you. Here’s how to structure the conversation:

  • “I was about to ask you ____.”
  • “I stopped myself and realized the reason I was going to ask you that was _____________.”
  • “Then I realized that it’s my fault because I haven’t been clear with you about _______.”
  • “From now on, I need us to agree that _________.”

4. Lastly, do the work on yourself. When you stop micromanaging people and start creating space for them to grow, you will experience an awful terrible feeling. It’s called discomfort. You’ll want to make it go away. The more you work on not micromanaging people the worse the discomfort will get. Bearing that discomfort is the price of entry to the next level of people leadership. Remember, you don’t get to feel good and grow at the same time.

Oh, and while you’re working on reducing and transforming your tactical check-ins, don’t stop the personal ones. They’re the ones that matter — building deeper trust, demonstrating vulnerability, and showing your care and curiosity for what’s going on in their world.

Now more than ever, that’s where you want to be.

P.S. If you have convinced yourself that you don’t micromanage… try the above steps for one week and see if your team responds differently. If they do, turns out you might be micromanaging without realizing it — can’t lose, right?

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