It seems you can’t go a week without reading something about why managers are the bottleneck in making a company better or how managers archaic views on people management are the reason that every company is failing to be as effective as it could be.
I particularly ‘like’ the posts that get shared on social media frequently that have one of those god awful pictures of some stock photo person with their head in their hands and some pithy statement along the lines of ‘People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers’ boo hiss. So in summary all managers are bastards right?
I can’t speak for all people managers, much as I can’t speak for all men, all Chelsea fans or all people who work in tech. What I can do is talk about my experience, both as being on the end of people managers (Good and bad) and being one myself (Good and bad). What I can tell you confidently is that managers are humans as well. We bleed, we take things to heart, none of the ones I know set out to be the reason their staff decide to go and work somewhere else and certainly the ones I know don’t set out to make the lives of their staff miserable.
We do however make mistakes. We make bad calls, wrong decisions and say things that on reflection are just plain wrong. But importantly, we don’t do this with the intention of making our staff’s lives difficult. As I mention above, we are only human and humans are yet to be proven as perfect. The big responsibility for a manager is that when they make a mistake, its likely to be a fair bit more visible than when someone else makes it.
What the vast majority of managers are trying to do is shared below (And remember this is my view — feel free to disagree)
- Act as the conduit between staff and upper management. We’re here to take the companies wide ranging goals and strategy and link that back to what the individuals need as their goal and vision. So if a company goal is to ‘Make more money’ (A crap example I concur) then its our role to provide a clear vision of what that means for our teams in their day to day working. It could be focusing on building out the capabilities of an existing product, working with our sales teams to unblock key accounts, product support or any number of different goals. The key is to provide that clarity
- Provide a compelling picture for the future. We’re not here to create the strategy in most cases. We’re here to give the teams a reason to get out of bed in the morning and show them that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today, which was a little bit better than yesterday and in a months’ time will be even better than where we are now. Importantly we need to link this back to the work each individual can contribute towards that goal.
- Support our people in growing. We’re here to support the varied and individual needs of our staff, whether that’s learning a new skill, improving an existing one or sustaining the skills they already have. Through opportunity, through frequent feedback and encouragement and coaching to reassure, monitor and provide clear goals for them to aim for. People need to feel like they both contribute to the work but that they get just reward from the work, through self-improvement and learning just as much as through monetary reward.
- Performance management. Those two words come with some huge (in most cases) bad connotations. People look at those two words and automatically think its about taking someone performing badly and either managing them out of a business (A shitty description) or pushing them over the edge into working harder and faster, It means neither of these things. Performance management is about recognizing the different levels of performance of your team members and mixing your style to support. So making sure you provide opportunity and self-fulfillment to the go-getter who wants to become CEO just as equally as the support you provide to the new joiner who right now has no idea what they want to do, how they do it and how they fit in to this new experience.
- Remove uncertainty. Everyone should have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them and how to achieve both company and personal goals. This should be done through frequent discussion, coaching and personal development discussions. Some won’t want all of this, so as I mentioned above, being able to switch your leadership style is important. Others will look to you to provide some or all of this.
- Provide the bigger picture. Its hard when you’re in the middle of refactoring a huge codebase and have just had your third PR come back with comments saying it can’t be merged to understand why the work you are doing now will make the company better than it was a month ago. Its even harder if last night you had a falling out with your partner, got zero sleep, your child is poorly and you’re stuck here listening to your team-mates discuss what happened in Eastenders last night whilst you just want to be at home. As a manager its our role to help individuals understand how each tiny contribution (However insignificant they might think it is) contributes to the bigger picture of the work the team, the department, the business unit and the entire company is succeeding.
Along with the above, there are the areas I like to call the difficult parts of being a manager. Again, feel free to disagree.
- Helping people get through problems. Managers deal with everything from stress, mental ill health, depression, break-ups, substance misuse, poor attendance, poor performance and anything and everything else you can imagine happens to all of us through our lives. We live at the sharp end of this in some cases. As people, we spend as much time (Sometimes more) with the people we work with as we do with our loved ones. So its no surprise that we see first-hand the problems that all of us will face at some point in our lives. Whilst this is a difficult part of being a manager, its absolutely critical. Being someone who will listen, who won’t pass judgement, who’ll suggest alternatives or who will just be in a room with you whilst you think the bottom of your world has just fallen out is a huge responsibility. This demand on managers takes its toll. I’ve been with people at the very bottom of the barrel, where the alternatives are in a bottle or oblivion. We pick up experience to try and help with this, some of us have training to help you though this, But it can and does take a heavy toll on us as managers as well. For me these conversations stay with me, for years afterwards in some cases. Does it help me be a better manager next time? Absolutely. Does it hurt like hell when you think back to that situation? Definitely
- Making decisions not everyone will agree with. Managers tread a lonely path sometimes. Not being the ones to always set strategy, not always being the ones to deliver it themselves but being responsible for seeing that staff deliver against it. Sometimes we have to make decisions that on the face of it look like the worst possible decision that could be taken. We don’t do this to annoy or frustrate. We do this because we need to see the bigger picture, to make difficult decisions that are sometimes at the cost of us or our teams but for the benefit of the wider company. This hurts us just as much as it hurts the people we work with. When it comes to making decisions that impact on peoples lives in a fundamental way, it hurts even more and we will do everything in our power to make it hurt for you as little as possible. But you won’t always see this or the burden it places on us as managers. The first time I had a conversation with somewhere where the outcome was that person not having a role in that company anymore, I felt utterly broken and have no qualms around admitting that that evening I cried like a baby. It feels awful. But this is the responsibility we take on in many cases.
- Having to take people through formal processes. The great part of being a manager is seeing in however a small contribution it was how you’ve helped someone progress. Whether that’s gaining a new role, learning a new skill or gaining confidence to do something as simple as stand up and talk in front of their peers. It is a genuine butterfly moment. The flip-side of that coin are the times where despite your best efforts and in many cases the best efforts of your staff, this isn’t possible. And it falls to us as managers to be the ones that normally have to start, progress and finish going through formal processes that do sometimes result in people no longer working with us.
And don’t forget that many (if not all) of the things I mentioned above are probably things that your own manager is having to go through and deal with via their own manager. (I distinctly remember one occasion where I was delivering news to my teams about a company wide restructure and got the sort of questions you know aren’t questions, they’re just loaded comments aimed at the company, at the exec, at me for putting everyone in this position — this was despite my job also being at risk)
So, the next time you see someone character assassinating a manager, or generally labeling managers as crap, have a little think. Is your manager really that person? Are they really going home each night to plot your downfall? Or are they going home each night worrying about how they help their teams?