The Right Side of 'My Way or the Highway' | Business LockerRoom

Business LockerRoom Blog

By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Feb 21
My way or the highway

The Right Side of “My Way or the Highway”

by Kelly Riggs

“My way or the highway.”

That’s not a phrase that is typically used as a compliment.

What makes leadership especially difficult is that leaders are often required to make decisions in which either outcome will be criticized.

So, apparently, the best workplace culture is one in which a leader allows employees to choose what they believe is right. Why? Seemingly every time a leader is faced with a difficult decision that adversely affects someone else, the first criticism is this:

He/she is just a micromanager. It’s just “my way or the highway.”

But here is the problem: Although micromanagers (unfortunately) are very common, making tough decisions – especially controversial ones – does not automatically make someone a micromanager. The logic is completely flawed.

The reasoning goes something like this:

A micromanager is someone who does not allow employees to make decisions or to do things differently. Joe made a big decision without asking for my input, and I don’t agree with it. So, therefore, Joe is a micromanager.

Which is completely absurd. This would mean a leader who makes any decision is a micromanager, by definition, if anyone disagrees with the decision. Which is silly. As anyone who has ever worked for a micromanager will tell you, simply making a decision someone disagrees with does NOT make that person a micromanager.

Consider this definition of micromanagement:

A micromanager is a boss or manager who gives excessive supervision to employees. Rather than telling an employee what task needs to be accomplished and by when, will watch the employee’s actions closely and provide frequent criticism of the employee’s work and processes. (Investopedia)

Or, according to Harvard Business Review, a micromanager is someone who exhibits the following signs:

  • You’re never quite satisfied with deliverables.
  • You often feel frustrated because you would’ve gone about the task differently.
  • You laser in on the details and take great pride and/or pain in making corrections.
  • You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they’re working on.
  • You ask for frequent updates on where things stand.
  • You prefer to be cc’d on emails.

In other words, a micromanager is obsessive, controlling, and usually quite critical. The question is this: Can someone make tough decisions – decisions that may not be liked or appreciated by some others – and still be 1) a great leader, and 2) NOT a micromanager?

Can leaders make tough decisions – decisions that may not be liked or appreciated by others – and still be an effective leader? via @kellyriggs #leadershipClick To Tweet

Lynn Doughtie, chairman and CEO of KPMG, seems to think so. In an interview with Business Insider, she said this about tough decisions:

“I think all leaders, at some point in time, [are] going to face tough decisions. And it’s really important that the way I approach that, and I think others should as well. You have to seek the facts. It’s not something that you do in isolation; it’s getting the perspectives, seeking the truth, and I think it’s also looking at the core values of what you as a person and as a leader stand for, and what your organization stands for, and there are certain things that are zero tolerance.”


“And it doesn’t mean you want bad things for people, but there are consequences, and you have to set the tone for the organization. And so, as any leader, or future leader, approaches those tough decisions, it is important that others are involved, but sticking to what you know is right, from your own core, is important. And then, also, usually, if it’s a really tough one, you’ve got to be decisive, and more quickly, and finding that right balance, seeking the facts, moving quickly, getting to the right answer, can be tough, but it’s something that other are watching, and it’s important that you, you set the example for your organization.”

Sticking to what YOU know is right? Well, that would be arrogant and authoritarian, wouldn’t it?? Clearly, she is just another self-serving micromanager.

See the point?

The reality is that leadership is a position that often requires tough decisions. The key point here is that those tough decisions are made far easier when cultural norms, expectations, and guiding values (or principles) are clearly understood.

Sadly, when those decisions are made, especially when they will create negative consequences for others, people typically accuse the leader – no matter the circumstances – of micromanagement.

How About Democratic Decision-Making?

To avoid the aforementioned, and misused, ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ assessment, some people would opt for a democratic workplace. Decision by consensus. Self-managed teams.

Holocracy, it’s called.

It is a ‘no-manager’ approach to the workplace in which teams are allowed to self-organize and to have the autonomy and authority to make their own decisions. Although it sounds friendly and fair, this innovative approach creates a significant challenge, as noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article:

Using self-management across an entire enterprise to determine what should be done, who should do it, and how people will be rewarded is hard, uncertain work, and in many environments it won’t pay off.

Why won’t it pay off? The team – comprised of many individuals – has to determine what to do, how to do it, who will do it, and much more, AND they have to reach consensus. Which, unless the decision is completely and voluntarily unanimous, means there will be conflict. Some people won’t get their way.

So, instead of one micromanager, it is simply a conspiracy of micromanagers. Tough decisions will still have to be made, and some people will inevitably disagree.

BUT….you’re screaming now…their voices will be HEARD. Other people will get to provide their input.

Oh, is that the problem? That your voice wasn’t heard? Isn’t that what Doughtie was addressing above when she said, “You have to seek the facts. It’s not something that you do in isolation; it’s getting the perspectives, seeking the truth…”?

There have been some high-profile companies that have ventured out into the no-leader workspace. One of those is the company everyone loves to love (including me, by the way) – Zappos. After three years of experimenting, the experiment doesn’t seem to be faring so well:

But this year, nearing the third anniversary of a shift from a traditional management structure to “holacracy,” a system that replaces hierarchies and bosses with “self-management,” something is different. In between the rapping and the report on the company’s “Pawlidayz” initiative to support pet adoptions, Hsieh, 42, takes to the stage to report disappointing news. He announces that scores on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For survey have tumbled on 48 of 58 questions. Indeed, Zappos has fallen off the overall list for the first time in eight years. Two questions that generated particularly dismal results: Do employees think management has “a clear view of where the organization is going and how to get there”? And do managers “avoid playing favorites”?

Well, that’s not going according to plan, is it?

To be fair, I suspect that small teams of very like-minded people, with a common purpose and well-managed egos, can pull off the idea of a self-managed team. But I also suspect it will probably be difficult to scale. Ego, ambition, drive, strong opinions, and many other things can, and will, easily lead to conflict and division.

Research from the Gallup organization suggests that setting aside leaders in lieu of group decision making is flawed, making note of Zappos as well as Google:

Unfortunately for Zappos, the holacracy experiment is causing workers to quit in droves, with 14% of employees leaving within weeks of the company introducing holacracy. People within and outside of Zappos are questioning the effectiveness of this organizational approach, which one employee called “painful.” This experiment is making clear that managers have a vital place in an organization.

Zappos isn’t the first company to struggle after eliminating the manager. As Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, describes in his book Work Rules!, Google similarly tried relieving all managers of their management responsibilities. The experiment was short-lived because of people issues and problems that the company could not handle effectively without managers. Google reinstated the manager role within six weeks. Google’s research also showed that workers with the best managers performed better and had lower turnover.

Effective Leadership Always Involves Tough Decisions

The issue here is effective leadership.

Clearly, micromanagement is mostly ineffective and leads to significant problems with employee turnover and disengagement. However, making tough decisions consistent with the culture and expectations of the workplace, does not, in and of itself, constitute micromanagement.

And eliminating managers from of the corporate structure does not solve the problem.

Leadership, as Gallup has observed, is actually invaluable in organizational performance. But leaders within the company actually have to focus on the functions and objectives of leadership. Sadly, too many leaders do not. One of the most significant issues in most companies is that leaders are far too busy to actually BE leaders. To function as leaders. To be effective as leaders.

However, when they are effective, the impact is considerable as noted by Gallup:

Employees thrive when they have a manager who motivates team members, overcomes obstacles, creates a culture of accountability, builds trusting relationships and makes informed, unbiased decisions for the good of the team and company. The impact of the manager is one of the most robust insights Gallup has ever discovered. And the many needs that great managers meet — for example, providing consistent communication and ensuring accountability — are among the most important drivers of long-term organizational success.

That said, there are times when those leaders MUST make tough decisions.

And there will always be those in disagreement who are ready to hand out labels.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”