Leadership Jul 2, 2012

Do Less

Why man­agers should stop micro­manag­ing and trust their employees

Based on the research of

J. Keith Murnighan

Listening: Interview with Keith Murnighan on Micromanaging

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In look­ing at the great lead­ers of his­to­ry — whether they are polit­i­cal lead­ers like Julius Cae­sar or busi­ness lead­ers like Steven P. Jobs — many peo­ple prob­a­bly assume that they must have tak­en a par­tic­u­lar­ly active role in run­ning their orga­ni­za­tions. Cae­sar, after all, per­son­al­ly led his troops into Gaul, and Jobs was famous for check­ing the design of even the small­est inner work­ings of every prod­uct at Apple.

But J. Kei­th Murnighan, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, says that is not the best way to man­age an orga­ni­za­tion. In his new book Do Noth­ing!: How to Stop Over­manag­ing and Become a Great Leader, Murnighan con­tends that the most suc­cess­ful lead­ers del­e­gate vir­tu­al­ly all the reg­u­lar work to their staff, free­ing their own time so that they can facil­i­tate and orches­trate every­one else’s per­for­mance. Not only will that improve morale, he says, but it will also result in a bet­ter prod­uct and a less stress­ful life for the leader.

Most lead­ers do too much,” Murnighan says. And when they do, they’re seen as micromanagers.”

Stop Doing What You Do Well
The idea for the book grew out of Murnighan’s near­ly four decades of teach­ing. He also uti­lized research by three fel­low fac­ul­ty mem­bers at the Kel­logg School: Adam Galin­sky, Vic­to­ria Med­vec, and Loren Nord­gren. Over the years, a key les­son Murnighan has taught stu­dents has been that deci­sion-mak­ing, nego­ti­a­tions, and team-build­ing skills real­ly are the essence of lead­er­ship.” He thought about turn­ing that par­tic­u­lar con­cept into a book, but then took it a step fur­ther. As you real­ize the impli­ca­tions of what you’re teach­ing,” he says, you want to take things to their log­i­cal extremes.” And the log­i­cal extreme of build­ing a team of trust­ed employ­ees and focus­ing on the big pic­ture is that lead­ers should do noth­ing” when it comes to every­day functioning.

In his class­es, Murnighan says, he often asks his stu­dents — most of whom are exec­u­tives or peo­ple who hope to become exec­u­tives — What would it be like if all of your team mem­bers were liv­ing up to their poten­tial? That gets big smiles from every­one. Then I say, Why don’t you just help them do that? All you have to do is orches­trate a bit and facilitate.’ ”

Most lead­ers do too much,” Murnighan says. And when they do, they’re seen as micromanagers.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that is eas­i­er said than done. Doing noth­ing is not easy for peo­ple who like their work and are dri­ven to suc­ceed,” Murnighan con­cedes. A com­mon prob­lem is that peo­ple often get pro­mot­ed to lead­er­ship posi­tions because they have been very capa­ble tech­ni­cians. When they are pro­mot­ed, it is crit­i­cal that they stop doing the tech­ni­cal work and del­e­gate. Suc­cess­ful lead­ers must shift gears and, lit­er­al­ly, do less of what they used to do, even though they were good at it,” Murnighan writes in the first chap­ter. Yet, they feel so com­fort­able using their old, estab­lished skills that they often have a hard time changing.”

That refusal to let go cre­ates a host of prob­lems. Many lead­ers over­see teams whose mem­bers are under-uti­lized and under-chal­lenged.” These employ­ees will not per­form effec­tive­ly, and ulti­mate­ly the best work­ers may leave in frus­tra­tion. Mean­while, the lead­ers them­selves are overstressed.

Start with Big Tests
Murnighan offers sev­er­al strate­gies for learn­ing to do noth­ing. For starters, lead­ers must seek out the most qual­i­fied employ­ees and match them to assign­ments that uti­lize their skills.

Murnighan sug­gests that a leader’s ini­tial impulse, upon tak­ing over a new group, is to give peo­ple a small task, to test them and to avoid risk­ing much.” But that is the wrong approach, he warns. Instead, do your home­work by con­sult­ing your team mem­bers’ per­son­nel files, with the express inten­tion of find­ing out exact­ly how com­pe­tent they are and what they have been cur­rent­ly work­ing on.” Next, new lead­ers should go beyond their own com­fort zones by trust­ing employ­ees more than they have been trust­ed and assign­ing them jobs that reflect that. Essen­tial­ly, they should ask their employ­ees to do more. Not a lot more, but a bit more,” he writes.

Of course, Murnighan is not real­ly advis­ing man­agers to lit­er­al­ly do noth­ing and go play golf. Even after all this del­e­gat­ing, effec­tive do-noth­ing” lead­ers remain engaged. One key func­tion, Murnighan says, is to walk the floor, ask­ing peo­ple two basic ques­tions: How are you?’ and Is there any­thing I can do to make your job eas­i­er?’ ” As Murnighan sees it, these ques­tions sig­nal that a leader cares both about the employ­ee and whether he or she is per­form­ing well. If you feel that the CEO cares about you, you’re going to be more moti­vat­ed to per­form,” he adds.

To a good man­ag­er, the words like facil­i­tate” or orches­trate” are not just emp­ty jar­gon, Murnighan says. A leader can help peo­ple suc­ceed in what they are doing,” he writes. “ ive your best sales­per­son as many insights about your poten­tial new cus­tomers as you and your team can provide…make sure that Annie fin­ish­es her work before William does his so that every­thing will be ready at the right time.”

By doing less and less,” he adds, you will have time to plan for the future.” Murnighan sums up his advice in what he calls his lead­er­ship law. Think of the reac­tions you want first, then deter­mine the actions that you should take to achieve them.”

Murnighan’s book cites two excep­tions to Do Noth­ing” lead­er­ship: When you are the only one with the skills need­ed for an urgent task” and When dirty work needs to be done.” The for­mer case, Murnighan adds, should only hap­pen once. After that, a com­pa­ny should train an exist­ing employ­ee in the miss­ing skills or hire some­one who can han­dle them.

The Boss Always Gets the Cred­it
Doing noth­ing cre­ates all sorts of ben­e­fits: a more sat­is­fied work force, a bet­ter end-prod­uct, low­er turnover, more time for plan­ning, and more relaxed man­agers. Peo­ple on your team will reveal skills that you nev­er knew they had, and they will accom­plish things that go far beyond your esti­mate of their capa­bil­i­ties,” Murnighan writes.

In addi­tion, he pre­dicts, lead­ers can cut their work week in half,” to a French-style thir­ty-five hours. But this strat­e­gy might seem to cre­ate career risks. Might office rivals spread rumors that the do-noth­ing lead­ers are goof­ing off? Au con­traire,” Murnighan replies. Because team mem­bers are more moti­vat­ed and are using their skills to the utmost, they can out­per­form their ref­er­ence groups. And when your team mem­bers are per­form­ing well, … who will get the cred­it for it? … You will,” he points out. Teams are always reflec­tions of their leaders.”

If your team is suc­cess­ful, and peo­ple see that you are doing noth­ing, they will not think of you as lazy. Instead, they will want to know your secret.”


Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

Con­sis­tent Con­trib­u­tors: Putting the team first helps solve the coop­er­a­tion problem”

Nice Guys Fin­ish Last: Altru­ism may be reward­ed with pres­tige, but sel­dom with leadership

How To Pros­per As a Prod­uct Man­ag­er: Redefin­ing and strength­en­ing the prod­uct manager’s role

Featured Faculty

J. Keith Murnighan

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations from 1996-2016

About the Writer

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning author and freelance writer specializing in health care, finance, and corporate social responsibility.

About the Research

Murnighan, J. Keith. Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader. New York: Portfolio, 2012. [Buy the book]

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