I was working with a team of frustrated sales people. They had a past sales manager that micromanaged them terribly.

The manager would get involved in too many deals. He would constantly dictate next steps. His deal reviews became opportunities where the team updated him on what was happening, so he could dictate the next steps.

The entire focus of the manager’s micromanagement was on him and his ability to achieve his goals. They had nothing to do with what the customer was trying to achieve. They had nothing to do the realities they faced in working with customers, with building the capabilities of the sales people or helping them think about their deal strategies.

The sales manager always knew, better, the next course of action, even though he was not the person on the front lines, working with the customer.

The environment the manager created was demeaning, stressful, lacked trust and candor. Sales people stopped trying to innovate and manage the deals, because they knew the manager didn’t care and wouldn’t listen. He always knew better and made that very clear in his micromanagement.

And, as you might expect, when things didn’t work out, it was always the sales person’s failure.

And, as you might expect, the company failed miserably. Which is why that manager is no longer around.

Fast forward to today, the executive team has asked me to work with the sales team to help them become more effective, to help them improve performance and produce the results needed.

As I started working with the sales people, I’d dive in. I started conducting reviews, drilling down into details, sometimes asking very tough questions. They’d be about their deals, who was involved, what was happening, why the customer was buying, what we needed to be doing to win the deal. Or their pipeline/forecasts, or their account plans, or what was happening in their territories, or the problems they were facing, or the things they needed to be more effective and impactful.

As I started diving in and pummeling the teams with questions, I noticed them shutting down. All of a sudden, I realized they were experiencing “deja-vu,” their micromanaging manager had done the same thing.

I struggled with what I should do. My intent was to do anything but micromanage them. My intent was to collaborate with them, to help them brainstorm their toughest deals. I knew I didn’t have the answers to help them win, I didn’t understand their products or their customers. But I knew I could ask them questions to help them think about things differently, and help them figure out what they might do next.

But to do that, we had to get into a lot of detail and I had to ask a lot of questions.

And, unfortunately, that looked a lot like micromanaging.

But it was worse. As I blindly pummeled them with questions and they reluctantly answered, I started coming up with my “what if ideas.” “What if you asked them this? What if you tried that, Have you thought of this……”

I realized the team wasn’t thinking of these as brainstorming ideas, but interpreting those as their instructions for what they should be doing–after all, that had been their past experience.

As I reflected, micromanaging and deep, detailed discussions look a lot the same–at least on the surface. However well intended these coaching and detailed discussions can feel like micromanaging, particularly if people have been subjected to micromanagement.

The difference I think is trust. Micromanagement comes from the absence of trust. Deep problem solving, collaborative coaching sessions must be based on trust.

Building a base of trust is the only way we can transform these discussions. We have to:

  1. Be very clear about out intent. Why are we doing what we are doing with our people? What is our intent, what are we trying to achieve together?
  2. We have to recognize that open, collaborative discussions are only possible with mutual respect. If we don’t respect our people and haven’t earned their respect, we can never have these discussions.
  3. We have to focus on shared learning, not defending a particular position.
  4. We have to recognize that we don’t have the answers. In fact our people probably are closer to having the answers than we, though they may need our coaching and discussions to discover and develop the answers.
  5. We have to shift the focus from our selves to our people focus has to be on our people, helping them think differently, helping them achieve success, helping them develop.
  6. We have to have a culture that values the exchange of ideas, collaborative discussions, healthy debate.
  7. We have to listen openly, recognizing we may have to change our positions.
  8. As we work with people who have been badly micromanaged, we have to recognize their past experience deeply impacts how they perceive what we are seeking to do. It’s probably useful to discuss this explicitly.

Micromanaging and collaborative discussions can look a lot alike–particularly if you’ve been micromanaged.