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Are You Undermanaging?

It’s fairly common to hear advice to business leadership about the perils of micromanaging. But according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, undermanagement is just as widespread an issue, if not even more so.

Undermanagement Is Too Little Management

First, let’s define the two terms. “Micromanagement” means becoming granular about the how and when of how to accomplish goals. Ideally, managers set goals and objectives but don’t get involved in more minute steps of how an employee achieves the goals. You might give your marketing director an objective to grow social media reach. But you don’t specify the individual steps of choosing which platforms or how to aggregate data. Even if this individual finds it challenging to take the first steps, they may take it upon themselves to check out sites like in the hopes of finding a way to help them grow any social platform. This may take time to see results and the manager is not looking for it all to be done in one day. As long as they can see the effort you put in and can show strategy, that’s what matters. This is just one way to micromanage staff.

“Undermanagement,” on the other hand, means too little management. It often means a lack of accountability for the goals, weak performance on goal achievement overall, or failure to make difficult decisions.

According to the HBR, up to one-quarter of managers undermanage. Sometimes, it’s because they are trying to avoid the dreaded micromanagement. Other times, it’s because business strategy’s priority is on team-building and want to be seen as more of a colleague or friend than a manager. Some undermanagement exists because clear goals don’t exist, and thus managing to goals isn’t dominant.

Managers who set firm goals can manage to them.

All too often, undermanagement is undiagnosed until results aren’t achievement or a conflict becomes a crisis because it hasn’t been managed. In addition, many undermanagers are competent at many aspects of their job – just not managing subordinates or teams.

Fortunately, there are steps to take to avoid undermanagement.

  1. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding conflict. All too many managers avoid conflict like the plague. Whether it’s a conflict between department heads, a boss and subordinates, or between colleagues on a team, conflicts need to be resolved, not avoided. Deal with conflicts one steps at a time. Identify the underlying issues. Meet with the folks involved. Set up a plan for resolution. Terminate or move people if that’s feasible. Like most things, all the steps toward conflict resolution become easier with practice.
  2. Set achievable and clear goals. Many undermanagers lead teams that fail to achieve goals. The first step is to make goals a priority. As the HBR points out, goals can be the map that undergirds all management decisions. Manage to goal. The second step is to make sure that the goals are achievable and clear. If they’re not, your staff won’t be able to meet them.
  3. Make your group accountable. Some undermanagers fail because they want to be liked by their subordinates. While that can be a good thing, accountability is better. Make sure your group is accountable by asking “is this the absolute best you can do?” Make them think through whether they are performing at a high enough level. Then, ask the question of yourself.

Although micromanagement and undermanagement are very different, there’s a fine line between them. Make sure that you give your employees leeway to formulate microsteps, but be sure to manage sufficiently. Otherwise, your team’s overall results will suffer.