The fine line between helping and micromanaging

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Q: Tom, 41, Captain:

“I’m a Captain of a 50m, and I’ve always been so determined to not be a lazy boss that I’ve now been accused of being a micromanager! Back when I was a young deckhand I had a really lazy Captain who slept in all the time and slobbed around the crew mess watching TV most of the day. Then when he got bored he’d storm around and scream and shout at everyone, looking for anything he possibly could find to pick on. I vowed never to be ‘that guy’, so I make sure I pitch in and help with wash-downs, always lend the stews a hand on charter, and generally give people pointers here and there to help make their work easier. I actually thought I was doing a great job with this, and then the other day I overheard some crew saying they think I am micromanaging! I feel really hurt by this, they don’t know how lucky they are that I get involved and am not like my old boss!”

A: The Crew Coach:

Ah, ‘micromanaging’ for all the right reasons! I love that you’re trying to be a good role model and don’t want to forget what it was like in the junior ranks—and I think your crew probably don’t realise just how lucky they are to have a Captain who does want to pitch in and help on an everyday basis. However, if we look at it from the crew’s perspective, unfortunately they may be misinterpreting your help as a sign you don’t trust them to get the job done right, which could be causing some of them to feel you are micromanaging them.

It’s funny, you asked for advice on how to explain to the crew why you want to stay involved—but actually you have already answered your own question in your question to me! All you need to do is to tell your crew what’s behind your leadership style, so they understand this too.

Sharing your Leadership Point of View

This strategy ties in with a new popular leadership methodology called sharing your ‘Leadership Point of View’ (LPOV). The idea is that you share with your crew a situation or story that shaped who you are as a leader in an important way.

In your case it’s simple: tell your crew about that Captain who let you down all those years ago by being lazy and shouting, and how you never want to let your crew suffer like that. Don’t be tempted to say something like ‘you’re lucky to have me in comparison’, just let them process your story in their own way. They’ll pick up on your authenticity and should soon start to view your actions through your good intentions and this new framework, rather than thinking you’re micromanaging. Use your story to talk about your personal definition of good leadership, and how you hope to succeed as their Captain, so they can really see the good intentions behind your behaviour.

Most people in a leadership role will have some kind of ‘back-story’ that shaped them as leaders, although sometimes it can take a bit of thinking about to figure it out. You might discuss a ‘light bulb moment’ or a major mistake you made during your career, while others might be comfortable going further back to their childhoods, perhaps talking about a military father who bounced coins off their perfectly made beds in the morning and shaped their idea of discipline. This kind of personal story is good at letting those who work under you know ‘why’ you lead the way you do. You’re not putting yourself down, or over-sharing personal information; you’re just framing your behaviour in its genuine human context.

Why telling stories helps people trust their leaders

As humans, we like hearing stories that help us make sense of the people and situations around us, so we can interpret others’ behaviour through what we know about them. Don’t be fooled into thinking showing your human side will make you seem weak; in fact showing this kind of vulnerability actually makes you a much better leader; a person your crew will trust and be loyal to. Sharing your leadership point of view with the crew is a positive technique which should reframe your relationship for the better, and remember — you get to choose which stories you share.

Then it’s time to step back a little

Once you’ve explained why you have been getting so involved in their daily work up until now, this now your cue to ‘let the reins go’ a little more. Even though your intentions are good and you only mean to help, it can be hard for crew to be under the eyes of the Captain all the time, so if you’re always out among the crew and giving suggestions for doing things the way you think is best, you’re not giving your crew the space they need to run the departments their way, and dare I say it, to learn from their own mistakes.

They’re never going to think you’re lazy, we’ve established that, so it’s OK for you to take a step back and allow them to take responsibility for their own departments. Tell them you’re available if they’d like your help and still lend a hand now and then if it’s welcome, but leave the day-to-day crew responsibilities to your crew and HODs. Showing them you trust them will encourage and motivate them even more than having you on hand to help every second of the day.

The added benefit of this is it will also free up your time to concentrate more on your own duties. I imagine you’re probably pretty overloaded if you’re trying to do wash-downs and heads and beds along with juggling your heavy Captain’s workload. As a result of sharing your leadership point of view, you’ll pave the way towards a better relationship with your crew, as well as taking the pressure off yourself, so it’s a win win all round.

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