Get off Their Backs! A JNCO’s Guide to Avoiding Micromanagement
By Ben Hayden
I walked down the stairs to the company offices ready for the obligatory 1030 post-phys roll call. At 1020 I was welcomed by the sight of 72 Guardsmen, stood in the rain in three ranks, nearly ten minutes early on a wet and windy November morning. When I questioned a few of them as to why they were stood in the rain without a jacket their response was simple: “I don’t know, I didn’t think we could just go and get a jacket to stop us getting wet”.
In my ten and a half years in the Army I have seen this type of scenario so many times. Yet I can honestly say that in the past I have been one of those individuals who would have stood in the rain without thinking about it. But why does it happen when we know that we need ‘thinking soldiers’? Is it because the individuals are not smart enough? Far from it. They are just scared of being the decision maker, the heretic or the guy cutting his own detail.
And the reason they are scared? They have been trained by their Junior NCOs to not think for themselves.
So many people feel the need to control our soldiers’ individuality, or to quash the thinking man. Yet doing this stops us from growing forward thinkers and leaves us with a group of soldiers who are scared to make small decisions. It may not seem like much, but a soldier who is stopped from thinking for him or herself can turn into a ‘flapper’ later in their career. The soldier who will not get in their doss bag on exercise through fear of something happening becomes a Junior NCO that will not just cut the bods away when nothing is happening.
Over the course of my career I have seen many NCOs crush the independent thinking of their soldiers. They do it through a very powerful tool: micromanagement.
Micromanagement: check rather than trust
The leaders that will not trust their subordinates to make decisions themselves are, typically, those that are stuck in the ‘old school’ way of thinking. The soldiers that cannot leave behind ‘how it was’ or ‘the old times’. These are the individuals that live by the mantra that “it is better to check than to trust”.
Do not get me wrong, sometimes you may need to check some tasks. However, I would like to pass on my experiences of when it is necessary to check, in comparison to when you can just explain a task and let your soldiers get on with it. This is not a lazy way to lead, but a great way to help develop your Private soldiers and Junior NCOs.
So what is micromanagement? Micromanagement is a type of leadership style where the manager (or in our case NCO) gives out a task and then proceeds to watch over the employee. This is to either direct them the whole way through the task, or even just do it for them and have the employee there spectating whilst they complete this task. The downfall to this method is that either they crush the individual’s desire to improve, or their people only learn to be guided step by step through everything.
I have seen this happen so much over the last couple of years, because some NCOs just cannot allow soldiers to make the lowest level decisions. In turn, those soldiers become reliant on their chain of command for even the most the menial decisions in life. Such as: it is cold outside so shall I wear a jacket, or will I get in trouble?
They have learnt to never make a decision by themselves, and so if they do not have an NCO to tell them that it is cold, they just stand there and suffer.
Empowerment as the opposite of micromanagement
Empowering someone is the granting of the power, rights or the authority to perform various tasks. For us soldiers, empowerment is the act of allowing your peers or subordinates to carry out a task with minimal or no guidance and allowing them to get on with it.
Delegation and trust are the two key parts of this, and together they are critical to developing new soldiers and even changing older ones. Allowing an individual to negotiate a task themselves with only a little guidance is a win-win for everyone involved:
- The individual conducting the task feels fulfilled and trusted.
- They feel that they have been given a problem to solve, and most people relish a challenge.
- The manager or leader gets a task completed without having to provide oversight.
- If the manager or leader gives the soldier the chance to give feedback, both get the advantage of passing on advice “from the workshop floor” to the chain of command.
Empowerment in your daily routine
As a Private soldier, it can be the bane of your life when the 2ic or Platoon Sergeant ask for a work party before a deployment. Let us use it as an example of how you can better empower rather than micromanage your people.
First, you can now sit there with the individual and painfully watch over the task to ensure it gets meticulously completed in your way, as you would get it done.
Of course, the task gets done. But what does this achieve other than showing an inherent lack of trust from you towards the person doing the task? You could just have done this task yourself.
Or do you let them just crack on with it all and see how it goes? What is the worst that can happen?
This can go 1 of 2 ways. The individual could get straight to it, knowing what they are doing or assessing what they have to do, and complete it with no fuss or minimal supervision. And this does happen. However, the other way this can go is that the individual starts the task with no clue on how to complete it. Having learnt to never think for themselves they do not want to ask for guidance and then completely hash it up. As this point you, as the taskmaster, will have your trust broken. The soldier will learn to never think for themselves again and always wait for detailed instructions. In future you will need to be the micromanager.
The final approach, in my opinion, is the micromanagement-beater with expert level empowerment.
When you get the task, identify the individuals you have available. Then work out whether and of them have completed this type of task before. If they have not, guide them on how it could be completed, making sure they have the correct items available or they know where they can be sourced. Then let them know if they need help you are on hand, but it is on them to finish the job.
This method gives the individual the feeling of being trusted, guidance from the experienced taskmaster, access to the tools required and the feeling that they have the freedom to explore different avenues. They learn to make their own decisions, but with a much lower risk of the task failing.
In my experience, this is how I try to empower my soldiers and the Junior NCOs that I work alongside. The key to all of this is that if we all work to phase out the ‘best-to-check’ mentality and trust individuals to complete tasks it will just become normal.
Our soldiers are from a generation that ask ‘why?’. This is a good thing and is part of what makes leadership rewarding. We must allow our subordinates to explore their own ways to achieve a task, not smother them with critique. If we nurture our soldiers’ desire to learn and their inquisitive natures, we will be able to say goodbye to the days of young soldiers just aimlessly following a task, content with a JNCO ceaselessly watching over them.
So work to empower our soldiers. Join me in helping our micromanaging culture to disappear. Together we can start to grow the ‘thinking soldiers’ we really need.
If you want to read more about empowerment and micromanagement check out our empowerment archive, including When I’m in charge, I will do things differently, where a Late Entry officer chooses to lead differently to the way he was led when he was a junior soldier.