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If you’re currently in a managerial role finding your days full of tasks, staying updated on the details of the work happening around you might pose a challenge.

As a manager of managers or someone overseeing a significant scope of products with a large skip-level layer, maintaining visibility of issues, progress, and where you can help remains essential.

But, with your days filled with meetings, how do you stay on top of what's happening so that you can be a proactive supporter instead of a micromanager?

How to avoid the micromanaging trap

Micromanagement occurs when those you manage, directly or indirectly, feel your heavy presence in their decision-making, or they feel they’re producing information for you consistently. It typically removes the feeling of autonomy and empowerment, often vital to role satisfaction. By limiting developer autonomy to decide for themselves, we inadvertently stifle their learning. It starts with good intentions, a desire to help, a feeling that you can make a difference, but letting the team make their own choices and fail is a key part of their development. 

That doesn’t mean you’re entirely hands-on, but it does mean you are aware of how and when you lean in. Remaining informed from a distance will allow you to provide guidance and steering at small, regular intervals and avoid the need to take drastic, course-correcting actions. 

Dashboarding is a valuable tool 

As a manager of managers, dashboarding can be a powerful way to collate and monitor data without excessive involvement in a report’s work. Metrics can take many forms: engineering velocity, goal completion, system health, or company targets. No matter the data you’re gathering, live dashboards provide a real-time view of overall performance and reduce the impact on teams to manually provide you with data. 

Your access to data sets reduces distraction for those delivering the work and creates a richer environment to ask questions, enabling them to be based on data-led insights rather than judgments. Make sure your dashboard contains metrics of importance that will replace the need for manual collation.

Motivate developers to showcase the outcome of their work

Introducing sessions in the delivery cycle where teams can showcase how their work has contributed to team goals to a wider audience gives you insight without excessive intervention from your side. Typically, these sessions are for the whole team and give a platform to more junior members. The frequency of these showcases can vary depending on the methodology a team is following but should focus on the problem a developer is trying to solve and the confidence or progress they’ve achieved. 

If you’ve been using dashboards as a means of observing trends, these meetings can be used to ask probing questions such as why certain metrics have changed, or how the team's work will impact their progress.

Quarterly/monthly business reviews

Arrange a brief stakeholder session to review progress towards team or company goals. This can be an effective way of having a targeted, goal-orientated review of what worked or didn’t work for a team. Rather than just assessing current team activities, a quarterly or monthly review should focus on team achievements and whether they yielded the expected outcome. 

This forum ensures clear goal-setting and expectations, fostering team confidence in achieving autonomy and accountability.

Hold weekly cross-functional standups 

Standups are a simplified and informal version of quarterly/monthly reviews, with minimal expected preparation in advance. The aim should be to align all roles and functions and give immediate feedback on delivery challenges or blockers. The result: stakeholders or dependents can get early visibility of issues and teams can alert interested parties on major tests or releases. The amalgamation of what’s discussed at a weekly level should be elevated to the monthly or quarterly sessions.

Use design reviews to gain insight 

The purpose of a design review, be it product experience or code, should be for teams to review their planned approach with stakeholders. It can be a great way of anticipating hurdles in the design and development process, offering visibility to peers and stakeholders, and providing early insight into a team’s direction before investing significant time or effort. Focus questions on clarifying the reasons and objectives behind decisions, rather than the specifics of the “why”. Keep the design review focused on the outcomes the team is aiming for, and avoid steering them on the implementation detail.

Join code reviews for added context 

A code review is the process of one person reviewing the code of the engineer who authored it. This can happen several times through the development of a feature, but typically occurs when the work is complete. The reviewer acts as a second pair of eyes, looking for issues or mistakes the author may have missed. The reviewer also wants to understand what the code is doing and make sure it’s understandable to other engineers. 

Joining code reviews can be a powerful way of observing the details within a team at a contribution level. Asking questions about a specific approach, or intended outcome can be educational for you and the engineer. This approach can have you learning more about the intended goal of certain actions, while engineers benefit from the guidance and advice of more experienced leaders.

Skip-level meetings

Skip-level meetings are where engineers meet with their manager’s manager. They’re useful for both parties: the more senior person can hear about issues directly from the team, they can build a rapport with team members they may not have regular interaction with, and they can hear about issues that a manager isn’t bringing forward. For the more junior team members, they offer a direct channel to raise issues they feel uncomfortable raising with their direct manager, and they allow them to learn from other managers. 

Approach these sessions with the mindset of supporting team members offering guidance and providing a pastoral element. Additionally, these can be helpful if you sense issues in the team, and you’d like to probe with observations that need supporting.

Common pitfalls of micromanagers 

Observation and metrics are great for measuring the progress of teams, but some overt,  common missteps can lead to a perception of micromanagement.

Using 1:1s for updates

1:1s are an opportunity to provide feedback, support, and career guidance to your direct reports. They give your team the opportunity to raise key issues and challenges with you, rather than the other way around. Using 1:1s to ask questions about a particular project or goal, takes away the opportunity to nurture your team, giving the impression those meetings are for your benefit rather than theirs. During a 1:1, you or your report may talk about project delivery progress, but making a habit of it, or the sole focus, can be disempowering and damaging.

Leaning in too hard

As leaders, we need to be mindful of how our words and actions impact those around us. While it’s tempting to assert the ‘right’ answer or make big decisions, a leader’s role is to provide feedback on presented options and guide teams to find the most effective route forward. Mandates from leaders may be required on occasion, but do so when necessary rather than as a force of habit. As a leader, focus your decision-making on providing direction, clarity, and alignment. Avoid making regular choices that disempower the team and your managers from having their own opinions.

Attending every session isn’t necessary

Leaders need to be aware of how their presence impacts the outcome of meetings. Most teams have created a trusted and safe space to discuss ideas and challenging situations. With a manager present, the nature of these can shift and lead to the perception of them being observed, or that they’ve made mistakes. 

Deciding what’s best for you

How you pull all of this together will depend on several factors: the size of your teams, the culture of your organization, and the trust and capability of your team. 

Managing your own time is vital, and deciding on what's important and what can be delegated or deferred is essential. Using many of the techniques or sessions in this article can help you prioritize where you spend your time without being deeply involved in every aspect of your team's day-to-day work.