How the f*&k do you manage people?

When I first got a job with “supervisor” in the title, I was 25 and thrown into a really uncomfortable situation. I was moved to one of my agency’s offices on the other side of the country, with new people I hadn’t met, and several accounts in turnaround condition. Usually in a turnaround situation, you want an experienced manager, and I was anything but that. How would anyone trust me, let alone listen to me? And where would I even begin?

It was at this point I decided to do a listening tour, if not out of simple decision-making paralysis. I listened to every person I’d be managing indivudally. I audited every client. And then I started treating my job like one of those thousand-piece puzzles.

Except, no one tells you that when you’re dealing with people, the pieces keep changing on you. Nearly 10 years later, the puzzle is still in motion. I learn every day and make giant, epic mistakes. But here are a few pieces of advice I’ve been noodling on lately that you might find helpful.

Listen up, but make a call.

In reading about CEOs in turnaround situations, I’m now finding that many of them begin by listening and taking an inventory of what’s right, good, bad and ugly. They are the ultimate data collectors. One big mistake I made as a new manager was continuing to collect data from anyone who’d kvetch along the way, instead of being assertive in my recommendations.

When walking into a difficult situation with unhappy people, it’s your natural inclination to want to win people over. After I started making some tough calls, I learned that being respected weighs more than being liked. Often, you’ll be liked if you provide some guidance and act like a human being to others. If you take in too much data and waffle, people will begin to walk all over you. Do your initial analysis, and make a firm call. You’ll probably mess up many times, but you can re-evaluate (with others’ opinions) and make changes when you do.

Stop worrying about being legit.

A problem with being young, or looking young, is that you spend a lot of time and energy worrying about perception. Chances are, you’ve been given a management title or project to run because you’ve proven yourself legitimately able to independently handle a task. The question is, can you rise to the occasion of helping others do it? Can you live with them messing it up when you could have done it yourself? The truer challenges are how you recover and teach the other person without making him or her feel like crap.

Or, maybe you’re being asked to do a presentation because you’re the one who has put in the work. In either situation, you did your hard time to get there, so you’re pretty freaking legit.

Get it? You’re legit already! Now, get out of here! (Wait, maybe finish reading first. Come back!)

Empathy up; empathy down.

When it comes to managing people, I firmly believe the analogy of doing a puzzle where the pieces keep moving. The problem is, one of the pieces that moves is you. Ever notice that as you get more experience, you are asked to do more things? Or maybe you volunteer to do them (you go-getter, you!). Something I still struggle with is taking on way too much, often in efforts to spare others from doing something, knowing they’re also busy.

Unless you’ve discovered cloning, this approach does not scale and can quickly lead to burnout. A burnt-out you is of no value to the others around you. Not to mention, the process of continually doling one-way empathy to others can be draining.

You can be a better, more inspiring leader when you buck up to the fact that you’re human and ask for help. Ask yourself if both you and others are doing the right things, and if not, try your best to make some changes to reset. Ask people to be patient with you as you try new ways of working.

Versus is a dirty word.

I am not advocating against competition. In fact, competition can be healthy, and often times people with natural competitive tendencies can be stars. I am advocating against factions (think: Us vs. Them).

I’ve made the mistake of over-commisurating in situations that are bad, which can pit the team against an individual, or set a tone of inescapable badness. I’ve also made the reverse mistake of Polly-Anna’ing a situation, pitting an angry team against an out-of-touch me (or at least, annoying the shit out of them). I still struggle with this balance.

One of my favorite clients ever involved me in a drum circle (true story), where each person’s solo played intricately into a larger, booming chorus of sound. Being from South Africa, she had a word that she lived by: “Ubuntu.” Loosely translated, it means “I am because you are.” To contrast, in the drum circle, if one drummer slammed out of tune with another, the result was just noise.

In a true ubuntu balance, you’re in touch with what’s happening around you. Sometimes that means acknowledging things aren’t perfect and working with each person to fix it. Client and agency partner are one team, or inter-departmental teams are a part of a greater whole. In this scenario, everyone is respected for their contribution and no one is reduced or diminished. There is openness and honesty, balanced with logic and a keen understanding of how each of us relate to our surroundings.

Try to get out of the way.

I debated renaming this piece “diary of a control freak.” In all seriousness, getting out of the way is my number one challenge. I never want people to feel as if they are alone in a struggle, since I have fallen on my face plenty of times with no net. It sucks. But often, instead of a safety net, I provide one of those super-cushiony bouncy castles that doesn’t allow failure, or even trial and error. In the worst of case scenarios, over-instruction strips out the creativity and fun.

Finding this balance between safety net and bouncy castle is by far the hardest thing for me. Enacting this practice of getting out of the way is a constant trial and error that depends on the comfort of the person and the level of difficulty or urgency of the situation.

If you are a control freak, start with “hands lightly on” and find yourself pleasantly surprised when people rise to the occasion. Maybe, someday, you’ll figure out the balance. Then, maybe, you can tell me!

I plan to keep this a working draft and would love to hear about the great advice you have, or have been given.

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