Last Word: Jack Welch Says Micromanagement Is Good – and I Believe Him

Leave it to Jack Welch, father of the famous rank-and-yank system, to defend micromanagement.

The former General Electric CEO is known for a lot of things, but in workforce terms, his embrace of forced ranking — the system where you evaluate your workforce by dividing them into 20-70-10 segments where the bottom 10 percent gets shown the door — is Numero Uno.

Welch emphatically disputes the criticism of forced ranking, and his role in making it famous, calling it a “media invented … sledgehammer of a pejorative that perpetuates a myth …”

Well, the media gets a lot of things wrong these days, so get ready for Jack Welch to have something else to get defensive about — people attacking him for his embrace of the wonders of micromanagement.

Loving micromanagement

But maybe that’s just another bad rap on Neutron Jack.

Here’s what he said about micromanagement in a recent post on LinkedIn titled Why I Love Micromanaging and You Should Too:

Look, we all know jerk bosses who stick their nose into every little thing their people are doing, and basically try to drive the bus from the back seat. We also know perfectly good bosses who do the same kind of thing for a different and legitimate reason — because they know the people doing the real work aren’t yet ready to do it themselves.

Let’s put aside those two situations, and talk about the much more common occurrence of bosses who get deeply involved in the day-to-day work of employees who are capable and competent.

And let me repeat myself: of that I approve.”

Welch approves of micromanaging when it involves what he calls the “accordion approach,” where managers “get very close to your people and their work when they need you – that is, when your help matters – and pull back when you’re extraneous.”

When a manager can help

He explains it this way:

Now what do I mean by “when your help matters?” That’s the key question, and I’d answer it as follows: Your help matters when you bring unique expertise to a situation, or you can expedite things by dint of your authority, or both. Your help matters when you have highly relevant experience that no one else on the team brings, and your presence sets an example of best practices – and prevents costly mistakes. Your help matters when it signals the organization’s priorities, as in, “Hey, we have high hopes for this new initiative. That’s why I’m in the weeds with it.” Your help matters when you have a long relationship with, say, a customer or a potential partner, and your being at the table changes the game.

In such situations, you have to micromanage. It’s your responsibility. Just as it’s every employee’s responsibility to help the organization win.”

In other words, Welch believes that micromanaging helps when the manager or boss has something special they can bring to the issue that helps both the employee AND the larger organization — and that they would be foolish NOT to get involved if that were the case.

Good managers are engaged with employees

I know that some people will consider this hairsplitting on the part of Neutron Jack, but I actually think he’s on to something.

He’s talking about what I find most galling about the silly TV reality show Undercover Boss — senior managers who don’t have a clue about what their people are doing, then are shocked and surprised when they actually find out.

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I’ve managed a lot of people, and one thing I have found is that the staff was more productive and attuned to how and what we needed to get done when I was closely involved with them. I never thought me digging into what they were doing as micromanagement, but rather, a process where I was involved at a level where I could help them make smart decisions, and give them my thinking when it most mattered, to help them make better choices both now and in the future.

That’s not micromanagement in my book, but as I read how Jack Welch describes it, that’s exactly what I was doing. And, I found that the people who worked for me generally appreciated me doing it.

It’s all about truly knowing your people

Welch draws the line between good and bad micromanagement, and here he describes what people pejoratively refer to — and what drives so many employees crazy:

Micromanaging only stinks when bosses do it because they have nothing better to do, or they’re constitutionally unable to trust people, employees included. I’d never support that.

Ultimately, knowing how and when to micromanage comes down to engagement. If you really know your people and their skills – as you should – and you’re in their skin about their passions and concerns – as you should be – you will know when to “squeeze the accordion” and draw close.

Similarly, you’ll know when to pull away and give them space. When your level of micromanaging grows out of strong, vibrant engagement with your people, have no fear. When you get involved, your team will know you’re in it for them. And when you step back, they’ll be in it for you too.”

Leave it to Neutron Jack to make micromanaging acceptable. I’d call it something else — engaged management, perhaps? — but whatever we call it, Jack Welch knows how good managers can help to make their employees work better.

If that’s what passes for micromanagement these days, consider me guilty of it too.

Employee engagement? It’s “stagnant”

Of course, there’s more than Jack Welch’s views on micromanagement in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly wrap-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Employee engagement? Gallup says it is “stagnant” — Are we at a point where we should stop focusing on employee engagement? Despite all the focus on it the last few years, the latest Gallup survey says that it is bad and not getting any better. “The percentage of U.S. workers in 2015 who Gallup considered engaged in their jobs averaged 32 percent” Gallup says. “The majority (50.8 percent) of employees were “not engaged,” while another 17.2 percent were “actively disengaged.” The 2015 averages are largely on par with the 2014 averages and reflect little improvement … most U.S. workers continue to fall into the not engaged category. These employees are not hostile or disruptive. They show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort … Not engaged employees are either “checked out” or attempting to get their job done with little or no management support.”
  • Zappos CEO defends getting rid of managers, downplays staff departures. I’m not surprised that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is defending his decision to get rid of managers and downplay nearly 20 percent of his staff leaving, but I do question why he didn’t voice his defense in The New York Times or some other significant media outlet. Instead, he did it in something called the Ferenstein Wire where was able to ramble on and on and on and on about why what he’s doing is such a good thing. I don’t agree, as I wrote last week, but it’s interesting to read Tony Hsieh’s defense here.
  • Should we blame consultants for the demise of middle management? I’m not a big fan of consultants, although I have known some good ones who certainly earn what they get paid. But, a lot of consultants just perpetuate BS and bad management, and The Washington Post is now blaming them for “the “flattening” of corporate hierarchies (that) has left employees with nowhere to go but sideways.” They write, “The practice of “flattening” organizational hierarchies — a way of improving efficiency by stripping out levels of bureaucracy, cutting costs in the process — has removed from many companies the ability to climb rungs in a corporate ladder, which used to serve as a primary motivation for high performance.”
  • Here’s why you shouldn’t hire off Craigslist. Years ago, back in the dotcom era, Craigslist was THE place to find technology talent during the dotcom boom. Today, well, maybe Craigslist is best avoided as a source of new employees. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “A woman hired off of Craigslist to work as an accountant for a Maryland Heights firm worked there for just one day, but bilked the company out of nearly $15,000 over the following months, police say.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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