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Are You a “Too-Much-In-The-Details” Boss?

boss in the detailsAs a long-time member of LaL’s 360º feedback team, I talk to a lot of folks about their bosses. At times, it’s very inspiring – a great boss can have a powerful impact on their direct reports and the overall culture of their organization, bringing joy and challenge to the day-to-day and helping individuals find and refine their passions over the course of a career.

From time to time, however, even the best bosses – the superheroes of the business world – slip into old habits or act on assumptions that may not be accurate or helpful. One of the most common of these dysfunctional behaviors is the tendency to be too much “in the details.”

Are you a boss who feels stuck in this behavior? There may be something seductive for you about being the keystone of an organization. But needing to have the final edit on every report and the final word on every decision isn’t great leadership. In fact, it’s not leadership at all.

Direct reports view this type of boss with a mix of admiration, frustration and fear. They may feel like nothing they do will pass the test, and thus become disillusioned or dissatisfied with their contribution. I often hear complaints of “endless iterations,” and a longing for clearer expectations up front followed by a real sense of trust and autonomy.

Those working for an overly detail-oriented boss may crave opportunities to learn from their boss’ experience and mindset, a process that requires both constructive guidance and some room to stumble forward. Not being able to provide this impairs the individual report, the organization, and you. I often hear about the lack of a number two person in an organization, someone who has the skills and experience to step up if the boss were to move into a different role or leave for some reason. This stifles your reports, limits the ability of the organization to be flexible, and may even cause you to miss an opportunity for promotion/growth.

If you find yourself holding on to every detail of your organization or department, the first step is to ask yourself why? Here are some possibilities:

    – Do you have trouble trusting your team? If so, is there an actual skill gap there? Is it easier for you to just do the work yourself than to address a performance issue? In this case, being in the details is really a strategy to avoid a difficult conversation. Simply trying to be “more high-level” won’t address that root cause.
    – If your team is high-performing and capable, maybe you struggle with describing your vision, thinking strategically, or providing a clear framework for what you expect (vs. knowing what doesn’t work after the project or report has been completed and re-doing it to your liking).
    – Perhaps it is simply an attachment to being seen as indispensable. Maybe you’ve spent the majority of your career being a “detail-person” and getting recognition for it. Suddenly, you’re a boss, called upon to do things you might not be great at right away. It’s easy to slip into behaviors that you are used to being rewarded for.

The important thing is to identify the fear behind the behavior, and to address that both internally and externally. If you are having a difficult time trusting your reports, explore what it would take for you to trust them (providing difficult feedback, carving out time for training or mentorship, etc.). If you are unclear about your expectations or overall vision, it might be helpful to spend some time getting clear, or to acknowledge that you’re not quite sure of what you’re looking for and that some back and forth might be necessary.

It’s also helpful to bring to light any judgments you have about your reports’ capabilities.  Where are you putting them in a box? In what ways might your behaviors (double-checking, not providing clear feedback, inserting yourself into their territory, etc.) be influencing how they are showing up?

If you are a boss who has struggled with letting go, or a direct report who has struggled under such a boss, I’d love to hear your experiences. What did it take to step out of this behavior? What were some of your strategies for addressing the issue in a healthy way?

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