When I was a kid, I used to beg my dad to drive over the rumble strips on the highway. It sometimes took a lot of begging and convincing. Rumble strips, if you don’t know, are the indentations on the sides of highways that create a loud, jarring, vehicle-shaking alert that you’re drifting off the side of the road. As a kid, I thought it was hilarious: the rumble, the vehicle lurching and shuddering, the coins rattling in the console, and the loud noise. I never understood why it took so much effort to get dad to acquiesce. I mean, who wouldn’t love that experience?
“Hahaha! That was fun, daddy. Do it again!”
Now, as an adult, I have a distinctly different experience when I’m the one behind the wheel and I strike the rumble strips. The core sensations are the same: the noise, the vibration, the shuddering and lurching. But my reaction to those stimuli is so different. My pulse quickens, my anxiety level increases, my palms sweat, and I feel less like I have the vehicle under control. The stimuli I thought was so enjoyable as a kid is something that I really try to avoid now. I get it now: I understand why dad didn’t want to do it. It’s stressful! It’s a little scary to hit the rumble strips!
“Wow, I didn’t know the steering wheel would pull so hard like that! What if the car would have gone into a spin? That felt dangerous!”
I’ve had some bosses that are like rumble strips. You don’t ever hear from them until something is off-track. When you do hear from them, it’s jarring, it shakes the whole world, and it makes you feel as though you might be in danger. A month of almost no communication with your manager beyond common courtesies at the coffee machine. You’re pretty sure things are going just fine. “No news is good news,” and all that. Right? Then, all of a sudden…
Some managers will call this style of management laissez faire. “Why bother communicating or interacting with my reports unless they need me to intervene? I’ll worry about whether or not there’s a problem, I’ll shelter them from the small problems, and I won’t interfere unless there’s a big enough problem that I need them to do something about it.”
However, this ignores the fact that every time such a manager actually interacts with their subordinates, those people feel that pulse-pounding, stressful, scary, things-are-out-of-control, I’m-doing-something-really-really-wrong feeling of
While I can understand why a manager would call this style laissez faire, let’s be honest: it’s reactive management, and what needs to be happening is proactive management. If the only time an employee hears from their boss is when things are off-track, then what kind of relationship will that foster? It will be uncomfortable, stress-laden, and guarded. Rather than managing like rumble strips, a wise manager will take the time to communicate with each of their reports frequently, and for no other reason than to stay connected. A strong connection with each member of your team ensures that you can address small problems before they become big problems.
Highway driving today is much different than when I was a kid begging dad to drive over the rumble strips. There are times I get annoyed with the GPS navigation’s repetitive reminders about what the next turn is, which direction it is, and how far away it is. However, if we’re really honest, the anxiety of “Did I miss a turn? Am I going the wrong way?” is completely absent when I use GPS nav. The navigation system makes it much harder to make wrong turns. If a wrong turn does happen, the navigator knows where you are, and simply tells you what the next turns are to get you back on course.
Like a GPS navigation system, good managers provide positive confirmation to their reports: “You’re on the right path.” Also, like a GPS system, smart managers stay up-to-date on the position of their team members, so that you can help them navigate. You can’t navigate with false or incomplete information; therefore, trust and honesty are crucial. Make it clear that it’s safe to deliver bad news: we can’t course-correct without the truth. If we can course-correct earlier, with more transparency and empathy, maybe we won’t get that dreaded feeling of