The New Manager Death Spiral
The starting gun fires and when the starting gun fires, you run. You’re a new manager, and while the sound of gun firing is startling, you run because this is finally your chance. You’ve been promoted to the role of manager, you want this gig, and this is your chance to shine, so you run.
I will now explain how your good intentions and well-trained instincts are going to erode your credibility, stunt the growth of your team, and re-enforce the theory that most managers are power hungry jerks working with all the authority and making judgment calls with woefully incomplete data.
It’s called the New Manager Death Spiral and, unfortunately, I can effectively write about it because I’ve performed parts of it. Over and over.
This is a synthesized version of the New Manager Death Spiral. It combines every single leadership mistake you can make spun into a beautiful, cascading, horrific mess. It is unlikely that you’ll perform the Death Spiral this completely, but I guarantee that you’ll perform parts of it.
It begins with a thought, “I can do it all. I’m The Boss.”
As a new manager, you want to prove yourself, so you sign-up for all the things, you work late, and you do your very best to kick ass and make a good first impression. This is the approach that worked well for you as an individual, so, of course, it’ll work when leading a team. This is where the Spiral begins because the initial thought is actually, “I can do it all myself. I’m the Boss.”
You are used to having complete visibility and total ownership of your work because that is how it worked in your former individual contributor work life. You are instinctually reluctant to delegate your work because it represents an unfamiliar loss of power. Compounding your poor judgment is your belief that you are the best person to do this because you’ve done it before as an individual.
The problem is your enthusiastic effort to prove yourself. You signed up for far too much work than you possibly do yourself, which leads to your first failure mode: the quality of your work drops because you lack the time to correctly complete it. Missed deadlines, dropped commitments, and half-completed work passed off as the final product are just a couple of awkward situations you discover.
The Spiral starts to pick up speed now because you can see the glimmer of your failure in their eyes. You update your mantra with an affirmation, “I can do it all myself. I’m in control because I am the Boss.”
With the first admission of the reality of the situation, you begin to half-delegate the smaller less important projects. Half-delegation is the act of giving them the work, but not full control nor context. They don’t need it, right? You’re the Boss. You’ll tell them when they need to know.
Like you, they start to fail either because they feel they don’t have the authority to change the course of the project or their lack of understanding of the fun context around the project had them pointed in the wrong direction from day one. They bring this to your attention.
First, They Tell You
This is where the Spiral gets painful. Remember — every possible wrong decision stitched together.
The team on the failing project says, “We didn’t understand that this portion of the project was more important, so we started over here which, in hindsight, was clearly the wrong place to start.”
You’re internally frustrated. You think, but do not say, “It’s obviously the wrong place to start. If I were running this project, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” You’re right, but you’re also so wrong. You’re right that if you were hands on running this project, your prior experience would’ve improved execution. You’re wrong because a strategy of not building trust through successful delegation is one the greatest accelerants to the New Manager Death Spiral.
However, you can not appear weak. Remember the line, “I can do it all myself. I’m in control because I am the Boss.” Changing strategy is an admission of failure, failure is a weakness, and you are the Boss. You give the barest of corrective advice and tell them “Go figure it out… or else.”
Your team leaves this interaction with the following impression: they are failing, and you’re mad, inflexible and unwilling to listen to their opinions. This is the point of the of the Spiral where they stop talking to you and start talking to each other.
Then, They Tell Each Other
Since you aren’t listening, this team starts talking to each other and other teams. They are trying to self-correct and perhaps they might, but this is the Death Spiral, so they don’t. They fail. This is unfortunate because they had all the data to be successful and just needed a leadership nudge, but since it was clear you didn’t want to hear it they didn’t share, and the project failed.
Everyone is demoralized, everyone feels like they failed, but since no one is truly communicating all sorts of opinion starts to become facts. You tell yourself the story that you might not have the right people on the team and perhaps if shuffling people around you’ll get a better outcome. They think they failed because you didn’t get them context because you were busy withholding information, being proud, and not listening.
They continue to judge, and they create their versions of the truth and you and your leadership style. Again, there’s far more of them than you, which means that their version of the truth spread at a faster rate than yours. Eventually, a piece of that twisted truth regarding your leadership ability arrives on your plate from someone you listen to and you’re shocked.
That is not me.
Congratulations. Through a deft combination of poor communication, crap judgment, and systematic demoralization of the team, you and your team have not only failed at the task at hand; but you’ve also irreparably harmed your relationship with your team and your credibility.
You’re right, it’s not really who you are. Who you are now is precisely the opposite of a leader.
Management is Not a Promotion
You’re promoted when you are successful in your current job. It is equal parts recognition and reward. In many companies, the expectation is that you’re performing at that higher level for a period before you are promoted, so there is a good chance you are equipped for this gig.
You do not start management equipped for the gig. I’ve said it before, your first role in management is a career restart. Yes, you’ve acquired dealing-with-humans skills from being a part of a team, but the New Manager Death Spiral is deliberately constructed to demonstrate how the very instincts that got you the new role are going to steer you in the wrong direction.
The New Manager Death Spiral is an unrealistic, but deliberate construction. It is unlikely that you performed every single step in the Spiral. It is equally likely that as you read this article that you nodded your head, “Yup. I did that.” Whether you performed one or all of the steps, the lessons are the same, and they are lessons I wish someone would’ve given me as a first-time manager. Here are three:
Let others change your mind. There are more of them than you. The size of their network is collectively larger than yours, so it stands to reason they have more information. Listen to that information and let others change your perspective and your decisions.
Augment your obvious and non-obvious weaknesses by building a diverse team. It’s choosing the path of least resistance to build a team full of humans who agree with you. Ideas don’t get better with agreement. Ideas gather their strength with healthy discord, and that means finding and hiring humans who represent the widest spread of perspective and experience.
Delegate more than is comfortable. The complete delegation of work to someone else on the team is a vote of confidence in their ability, which is one essential way the trust forms within a team. Letting go of doing the work is tricky, but the gig as a manager isn’t doing quality work, it’s building a healthy team that does quality work at scale.
At the heart of each lesson is the same essential leadership binding agent: trust. When you are actively listening, and when their ideas visibly change your decisions, you build trust. When diversity of opinion is valued and creates healthy debate, you create trust. When you truly delegate the work that made you a better builder, they will begin to trust you as a leader.
And that’s who you want to be.