A decade into my professional career, I’ve managed and been managed by an array of folks — MBAs, PhDs, doctors, nurses, engineers, and many people in between.
There is no question that different people require different management styles, but throughout all of these experiences, there have been common threads that have led to managers getting the most out of me, or me getting the most out of people that I’ve managed.
The good news: it isn’t rocket science.
Although much has been written and researched about how to manage, what I’ve found is that what we want out of managers is simply what we want out of anyone we spend time with in our lives: honesty, respect, empathy, and kindness.
The bad news: sometimes these things are the easiest to forget.
I remember when I became a manager at a previous job, all of the new managers from across the country were flown in for a three-day management conference/boot camp where we learned about a bunch of sexy management stuff, like toolkits, proprietary methodologies, and the latest personality tests to better “understand” the people we would be managing. Although there were some learnings to be had, these are all secondary (or tertiary…or quaternary) considerations when it comes to managing people.
People have problems, but people themselves are not problems, and thus you can’t “solve” them with a special framework like you would a technical bug or math equation.
I’m still relatively early in my management career with plenty to learn, but here are some valuable habits that I’ve found to be universally applicable no matter the field or person you are dealing with:
1. Don’t interrupt
Although it sounds easy enough, by not letting someone finish — no matter your intention — you may be subtly (or not so subtly) undermining what that person is saying or how they feel. The moment you interrupt someone, you are making a statement that your words are more important than theirs.
For someone that may already not be the most confident in sharing their ideas, being regularly interrupted is a sure-fire way of exacerbating those insecurities and pushing them further into their shell. Managers should instill confidence in their people, not drain it.
The best leaders and managers I’ve ever been around have made a conscious effort to listen to everything that is being said before chiming in with their own thoughts. I don’t care if you think you already know the answer or how you are going to respond, we learn from kindergarten that interrupting is rude, and the workplace is no exception.
2. Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand
You have likely heard a form of this phrase before, but it is one of the few management tropes that I think deserves to be repeatedly emphasized. Directly related to number one, if you find yourself frequently interrupting others, chances are you are listening to respond. It is very easy to get into this habit, especially in a workplace culture where people are always expected to have quick, insightful things to say. But at least during 1-on-1s with direct reports, I live by the mantra that it is almost always better to talk one second too late than one second too early, and I encourage you to do the same; although it might seem counter-intuitive, you will likely get to the root of any issue — and build mutual trust — faster by taking the extra time to internalize and understand, versus spewing out the first response that comes to mind for the sake of trying to appear smart and/or quick-witted.
3. Feedback should make a product better, not make it yours
Whether it be on a presentation, report, mockup, or even a draft email, when providing feedback, the primary goal should always be to make the final product objectively better. I’ve been in countless situations throughout the years when managers have provided feedback that did nothing to the quality of the deliverable, but just made the look or language more aligned with how they would do it or how they are used to doing it.
This doesn’t mean that, as a manager, you can’t share your own stylistic thoughts as something to consider, but that’s all that feedback like that should be — something to consider. It shouldn’t be seen as a you-must-do-this type of change, otherwise why bother empowering someone to take the first cut at a deliverable if you are going to overrule them to make it your own anyway?
One of the hardest things to do as a new manager is to detach from the mindset that your way is the only way, but it is one of the major keys to unlocking your own potential and the potential of those around you. To become a good manager, you must learn to become more comfortable with controlling less, and the best way to do that is to decouple your definition of better with the definition of better.
4. Admit when you don’t know the answer
In the world of consulting, where I started my career, you are expected to advise seasoned executives on what to do whilst having very little industry knowledge yourself. This often puts consultants in the awkward position of having to dance around the fact that they don’t always have the answers, and thus comes the imposter syndrome dilemma that almost all consultants — and many managers in other industries — face at some point in their career.
As a manager, the easiest way to avoid imposter syndrome is to not put yourself in a position to look like an imposter (AKA don’t pretend to know something that you don’t). Managers aren’t meant to be omniscient superheroes that always know what to do, but they are meant to be people that others can rely on to be truthful, transparent, and supportive. If you don’t know something, communicate that with your direct report/team and figure out a way to work through it together. The last thing you want to do is give totally unfounded advice that comes back to haunt both you and your team in the future.
5. Own up to your mistakes
There are two things that connect us all as human beings: our natural ability to make mistakes, and our natural inability to own up to them.
No matter the context, it is never easy to say the words I was wrong or I’m sorry. At first glance, the easy path is always to lie, deflect, or go with a classic cop out like I was wrong, but you also should’ve done x or I’m sorry, but in my defence yada yada yada. Unfortunately in the workplace, the easy path is all-too-common.
I, and I’m sure many others, still struggle with this, but if you want to build deep, fulfilling relationships with your team, you need to be able to admit wrongdoing, and without excuses or qualifiers. Normalizing this behaviour will make your team feel more comfortable to share their mistakes with you right when they happen, which can not only benefit your relationship, but your business; there is nothing worse than a minor mistake getting swept under the rug out of fear of retribution that ends up snowballing into something bigger that is no longer a quick fix.
I’ve worked with people who have dreaded their ongoing 1-on-1s, and I’ve worked with people who have found them to be incredibly valuable and fulfilling. Although there are many factors that go into creating a positive manager-direct report dynamic, by setting a good example and regularly practicing the habits above, you can promote a work culture within your team that is built on trust, honesty, and respect — all things this world can use a bit more of.