Being a manager does not make me less stupid

Embrace being wrong

I started my career as an intern in the IT department. I would spend my days fixing up computers and servers. I would crawl under desks, remove plastic tiles from the floor to reveal network cables and rewire them. I had to switch backup tapes, reinstall computers all the time and move around all these heavy CRT monitors. Back in the days, we did not need a subscription to the local gym. We had CRT monitors!

Interestingly, when you are seen spending your days crawling on the floor and under desk opening computers, people do not consider you a model of gravitas. It might be the screwdriver in the mouth or the tile glue on the hands and smeared over the face. And it is objectively true that in meetings I would say things that are very stupid. My colleagues would nicely point that out. I would have to think carefully in my head before opening my mouth. Good habit to take, by the way.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

You grow and you learn.

Fast forward a few years later and I became a manager. And insidiously, something happened. People stopped pointing out that what I just had said as a stream of consciousness was stupid. This is something that happens gradually — you don’t necessarily notice it right away. You have to think about it and realize that you apparently have not blurted out stupid meaningless comments. Stranger even, people listen to you now.

Two hypotheses could explain what was happening.

Hypothesis 1

Either through my experience and my new title, I had grown wise and omniscient. I could unravel the hidden plans of the competition, find the perfect strategy for the market and share my deep understanding of how to manage teams and projects. The team would listen silently. By some miracle of corporate promotion, my IQ had obviously doubled by being promoted to manager and at this rate and with a few more promotions, I should be able to find the ultimate equation to the unifying model of the universe.

Hypothesis 2

Or it’s just that people were less eager to point out how stupid what I had just said was. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe out of themselves not being sure and relying on corporate structure to ensure good decision process. Or maybe they were not interested that much to begin with.

As much as I wish it was the former and that I am on my way to a Nobel prize, it is obviously more likely that the latter is correct. As a manager, you will still say as many stupid things as you did before. It is even likely you will say more stupid things than before. You may have to cover fields you have limited knowledge about. You may be working with specialists who are extremely more knowledgeable about the subject matter with you and yet you would end up taking decisions that are senseless. This is dangerous and would be frustrating to your colleagues.

It is extremely important to be aware of this bias and to recognize it in yourself as well as in your team members. Too much deference to your own opinions is dangerous. Intellectual Honesty and the analysis of the value of an argument based on the argument itself, not who says it is extremely important. And extremely difficult.

Practice being wrong. Invite dissent. Invite discussion. Work with the team to understand how to think about problems and find the right decision.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups is a great book that deals with the need for Intellectual Honesty and admitting weakness, as a tool to build a great team. It’s a great read and will help new managers getting at peace with being wrong.

Native French, working in English in Japan for 15+ years and managing various teams at getting things done, with variying degrees of success.

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