HR can help ‘helicopter bosses’ stop hovering
Generation Z and Millennial workers may be used to constant monitoring. They grew up under the close surveillance of helicopter parents. But workers of any generation stagnate rather than thrive under micromanagement. With the rise of remote and hybrid workplaces, helicopter bosses are now much more common.
“Previously, helicopter bosses would judge the success of their employees by what they observed in the office, such as arrival and departure time, if the employee looked busy, etc.,” said Adam Weber, senior vice president of community at 15Five, a performance management software company. “In a remote/hybrid world, that looks like surveillance tools, late-night Slack [messages] to test dedication, etc.”
Recognizing why a person is a helicopter boss is essential. Sometimes, managers distrust their employees, or they may not be sure how they will be held accountable for their direct reports’ actions. This fuels the need to be in control by tracking their workers’ every move. Hybrid or remote situations can intensify this productivity paranoia when working in different locations requires extra effort to connect with people, rather than being one step away and just peering over someone’s shoulder.
“What I’ve read about it and seen in my own coaching practice is that helicopter bosses are a bit more unsure of themselves, have a streak of perfectionism or may be in a precarious position because their bosses are putting them under a lot of pressure to deliver,” said Brenda Ellington Booth, clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Whether you call it micromanagement or helicopter bosses, one thing is indisputable—the outcome is never positive. It decreases psychological safety, which is critical to building trust, and it stunts a worker’s professional growth, according to Booth. Bosses who manage this way create a dependency—their teams cannot move forward on anything without consulting them first.
“Psychological safety is one of the key components of innovation and productivity,” Weber added. “Helicopter bosses create toxic work environments where employees don’t experience the freedom to grow and ultimately thrive, and [they] rob people of their autonomy, which we know drives performance.”
Identifying a Helicopter Boss
As an HR leader, you may hear complaints about micromanagers, but they may not be described that way. Employees may say “My boss doesn’t trust me” or “I can’t make a decision without talking to my boss.” Booth suggested watching for body language and asking specific questions to understand if this person is being stifled by a helicopter boss.
“As an HR professional, you have to look for behavioral feedback. If you ask, ‘How are you and your boss getting along?’ is the person’s body language enthusiastic or just OK?” she said.
She suggests asking these questions to get a clearer picture:
- Tell me, what is working with your boss like?
- If there is one thing your boss could do more or less of, what is it?
“These are a nice way of getting at what that employee is feeling,” she said.
Weber added that employees with micromanaging bosses often withhold candid feedback on engagement surveys. This might be why low performance and high turnover rates occur in departments with good survey scores.
“When a helicopter boss is in a meeting, the team is reluctant to share or only shares things in alignment with the boss’s perspective,” he said. “If employee behaviors feel largely performative, you likely have a helicopter boss.”
Outcomes of Micromanagement
Helicopter bosses often don’t realize the extent of their damage because they are mainly concerned about their performance and self-image. Helping these individuals understand their impact on workers and exactly what their job entails can help shift their mindset.
“HR and executive teams need to clarify expectations of what a great manager looks like in their organization, such as implementing weekly one-on-ones and check-ins, giving feedback, and setting and aligning around goals,” Weber said.
Giving employees greater space and flexibility, especially when a manager is used to hovering, takes effort. However, it’s a habit that can be learned and become second nature. Because micromanagers are often mirroring the technique their boss had, they need to be shown a better way, according to Weber.
Part of that includes better understanding what their job entails. For example, is their purpose only to ensure direct reports get things done, or do they have the authority to encourage professional growth, delegate responsibilities and develop their employees? When managers have a genuine interest in developing others, it pays dividends.
“If you could be the boss that trains people well, then you will have people loyal to you,” Booth said. “Whether they go off into other departments within the organization or the world, they’ll also be incredible sources of information and networks for you.”