I was recently talking to a friend Sarah who runs the marketing/communications department at a larger organization. Sarah was frustrated because she felt like her employees were very smart and capable but that they weren’t being careful enough with their work. As a result, mistakes were slipping through and she, as the head of the department, was getting criticized by her boss and clients.

I asked her what she was doing to address the problem and she said that she had instituted a new rule where everything that left the office had to go through her first.
The problem with this method was twofold:

  1. There are literally not enough hours in the day for Sarah to review everything that leaves her large department, and
  2. She is creating a negative working environment by making people don’t feel like they aren’t trusted to do their jobs.

I raised these concerns with Sarah and she admitted that her plan wasn’t working for her. The result of being cc’d on every email and being asked to sign off on every memo or article meant that she was unable to weed through her email to find those she needed to respond to and she had no time to do any of the bigger picture strategic work that she had actually been hired to do in her leadership role.

Upon further investigation it seemed like there was not much in place in the way of an evaluation system at the organization. As a result employees tend to only get very specific reactionary feedback when something goes wrong or when something really good happens. Reactionary feedback can be valuable but it is hard to learn much from it that can be applied in a broader sense.

In order to really grow as employees, people need to have more of a sense of their overarching strengths and weaknesses otherwise the takeaway is going to be, for example, “I need to make sure Sarah doesn’t hear about anymore issues with press releases” as opposed to “I need to spend more time double checking my work because clearly things are slipping through the cracks sometimes.”

At first, I hesitated to give Sarah this advice because it certainly creates more work for her in the short term and a lot of the problem she is having is that there is just too much on her plate at the moment. However, I think it’s worth mentioning because in the long term it has the potential to let her trust the people who work for her to shoulder more of her load.

The other component to Sarah’s micromanaging was that her employees did not feel trusted to do their jobs. As a result they took less ownership over their work, were less likely to spend time doing things like proofreading and thus made more mistakes. In order to correct this problem Sarah needs to give her employees more responsibility, not less.

One approach is to make the working group responsible for preventing errors and incentivizing the group to be error free. Instead of admonishing the employees when they make a mistake, Sarah could offer a bonus to the group that had the fewest errors. When everybody has a vested interest in keeping error rates down, Sarah won’t have to be the only one who shoulders this burden.

What advice would you give Sarah on managing her employees?

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