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How to Be a Better Manager: Do Nothing
 

A new book preaches the gospel of management minimalism.

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Your business is your baby and as we all know babies take a whole lot of care. Without you your staff would be fussing and flailing, so your continual oversight is required just as it would be with a beloved-but-needy small family member.

That may be the thinking of many managers (even if they try to delegate) but it's not the best way to lead according to a new book by Kellogg School professor Keith Murnighan entitled Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader. What's the heart of the argument?

"Most leaders do too much," Murnighan told Kellogg Insight, explaining that this leads to "under-utilized and under-challenged" team members who often switch jobs in frustration, as well as stressed-out managers with little time for big picture thinking. Instead of giving in to their urge to micromanage, leaders ought to focus on decision-making, negotiations, and team-building and leave everyday functioning to their employees. You can "give your best salesperson as many insights about your potential new customers as you and your team can provide," or "make sure that Annie finishes her work before William does his so that everything will be ready at the right time," says Murnighan but stifle the impulse to intervene in day-to-day functioning.

That's easier said than done. "Doing nothing is not easy for people who like their work and are driven to succeed," Murnighan concedes. He prescribes a short, sharp shock to your system to convince you to step back, according to management guru and Stanford professor Bob Sutton, who positively reviewed the book on his blog recently, praising its evidence-based approach. Sutton summarizes Murnighan's strong medicine for managers:

Every boss ought to try his litmus test:  Go on vacation, leave your smart phone at home, and don't check or send any messages. Frankly, many bosses I know can't accomplish this for three hours (and I mean even during the hours they are supposed to be asleep), let alone for the three weeks he suggests.  As Keith says, an interesting question is what is a scarier outcome from this experiment for most bosses: Discovering how much or how little their people actually need them.

Sutton accepts that this will sound like madness to most managers and business owners, but believes that Murnighan's solid evidence and clear reasoning will win them over even as his book goes on to offer more difficult to swallow advice such as "ignore performance goals" and "de-emphasize profits." The bottom line, according to Sutton, is that Murnighan convincingly argues that "the usual managerial approach of starting out relationships by mistrusting people and then slowly letting trust develop is not usually as beneficial as starting by assuming that others can be fully trusted until they prove otherwise."

Of course there are exceptions to the do nothing rule such as when you are the only one with the skills needed for an urgent task. But Murnighan stresses that occasions like this should only happen once before a frontline staff member is trained to take on similar issues in the future.

Be honest: Do you overmanage your staff?
 

Last updated: Jul 3, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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