We’re all familiar with helicopter parents, but have you heard of helicopter bosses? It’s a newer way to think about a very old problem: micromanagement. But thanks to the pandemic and the rise of remote working employees, managers have been facing new challenges, and sometimes responding in unproductive ways. The Vida Aventura team is on it, and we’re taking a deeper look at what this means for you and your organization.


What Is a Helicopter Boss?

Micromanagers are basically bosses who just can’t help themselves when it comes to keeping an eagle eye on their teams. But what happens when those team members are remote? It can trigger additional insecurities in company leaders, which causes them to “hover” even more, and transform into something that looks an awful lot like grade school hall monitors. 

In 2020, Harvard Business Review released a study that surveyed more than 1,200 people across 24 different countries. Here are some of the results:

      • A fifth of remote workers felt their supervisor was constantly evaluating their work.
      • One-third agreed their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills.” 
      • 38% of managers felt workers simply weren’t as productive at home.
      • 40% had low confidence in their ability to manage remotely.
      • There is a lack of self-efficacy for managing remote working, with self-efficacy referring to the belief in one’s own ability to master challenging situations.
      • 41%  agreed with the statement, “I am skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term,” and a further 17% were unsure.

I’ve seen first hand how difficult it is for managers to lead remote teams—especially when there is skepticism regarding their team’s abilities, and they are relying on traditional tools used in brick-and-mortar work spaces. It can be incredibly stressful and exhausting for all parties involved.


Traits of Helicopter Bosses

Leaders who are also remote micromanagers (helicopter bosses) have tendencies to:

1. Constantly check-in or call, email and text employees

2. Overwhelm team members with unnecessary virtual meetings

3. Relay over-the-top instructions and project details.

The result? Remote workers become disengaged, less motivated and unproductive. And teams become disjointed and dysfunctional, which creates a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. 

And that’s not all. According to a recent Gartner article, much of it comes down to trust. 

“Whether they admit it or not, micromanagers usually feel that they can’t trust employees to perform their jobs away from the physical office environment,” says Daniel Sanchez Reina, Gartner VP Analyst. “Employees who don’t feel trusted lose self-confidence and contribute less. Micromanagers stifle creativity and growth, and need to take action and work on both their own behaviors and the norms they set for their teams.”


Are You A Helicopter Boss?

How can you tell if you are a helicopter boss? Here are five questions from the Gartner article that you or your colleagues can ask.

 1. Do I often have concerns about or question (outspokenly or silently) employees’ productivity?

 2. Do I find myself constantly wanting to be informed of every bit of progress made?

 3. Do I peek into systems records to check that someone actually did what I asked?

 4. Do I find myself limiting others’ authority to keep myself engaged with initiatives?

 5. Do I find it difficult to delegate tasks because I don’t trust they will get done?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’re likely a micromanager.


What You Can Do

If your organization has seen a rise in helicopter bosses, there is hope. In fact, there are five recommendations from Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues that provide a map for giving confidence back to managers and bring them back down to earth:

1. Start at the highest level possible. It is very difficult to expect managers to act differently than their own leaders. The managers who struggled with leading remote teams had low job autonomy and excessively controlling and low-trust bosses. This result suggests that organizations must create change at the highest level possible.

2. Provide practical and moral support for remote working within the organization. Organizations need to move beyond rhetoric about supporting flexible working and actually enact this support by, for example, ensuring workers have the equipment needed, providing resources to support staff wellbeing, allowing extra leave for workers if needed, and giving training to support flexible working. These changes will not only help workers who are operating from home, but will help managers because they give a strong signal about the company’s genuine commitment to this work practice.

3. Educate managers about the potential benefits of remote working — when it is designed well. Existing research on teleworking shows that it can be more productive than office working, but the benefits arise largely because of the greater autonomy afforded to remote workers. If autonomy is low and micromanagement high because of managerial mistrust, benefits of remote work are unlikely to arise. Managers need to understand the work designs that need to be put in place to facilitate effective remote working.

4. Train managers in how to devolve job autonomy, and to check in rather than check up on. Simply telling managers to trust their employees is unlikely to be sufficient. Rather, they need to learn new skills of delegation and empowerment to provide their workers with greater autonomy over their work methods and the timing of their work, which in turn will promote worker motivation, health, and performance. Sometimes managers confuse autonomy with abdication or abandonment of employees. Managers need to learn that autonomy doesn’t mean less communication with employees. Frequent and regular communication are even more important when employees have autonomy. But rather than checking up on people as a way to micromanage them, managers need to check in with people and provide them the information, guidance, and support to work autonomously. Our study suggests that those supervising others, yet who do not define themselves as managers or professionals, need such training most.

5. Train managers in how to manage by results. Managing by results goes hand-in-hand with job autonomy. When you give people the discretion to decide for themselves how and when they will work, it is important to assess whether they are delivering the results. Hence, managers need to put more focus on the outputs of the work than the inputs.  An extreme version of managing by results is a Results Only Work Environment (or ROWE) in which you take little or no notice of when or where or even how people do their work, so long as they deliver the results. ROWE was first shown to be effective for performance in Best Buy, and subsequently shown to have success in other companies. Managers of people working from home during the pandemic might not need to be quite as extreme as those in ROWE environments — but they do need to untether their workers and trust them to do their work without constant checking.


Bottom Line

Company executives, leaders and managers should consciously commit to providing flexible work options, practical support and training, and make flexibility and openness a part of the culture. 

I’ve seen how effective remote working can be, once teams and managers are given the tools and skills to adapt accordingly. If you’re interested in what that looks like, or how to increase managers’ self-efficacy for leading remote teams, Vida Aventura can help. We’d love to show you how. 


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Feature Image Photo by Yan Krukov: https://www.pexels

Most leaders struggle with disengagement, dysfunction, and non-productive behaviors with their teams. We deliver training that develops leaders and engages teams to increase your company results.