By Jeffrey Baumgartner
An unpleasant fate that befalls many a highly talented employee is promotion into management. Sara is an excellent research technician, able to work in teams and independently. She has played a key role and numerous patents won by her company. Inevitably, she was promoted to team leader. No longer able to tinker quietly in the lab with tools and gadgets, things she is comfortable with, she now has to manage a group of people which she is not comfortable with. She has gone from loving her job to hating it. Nevertheless, she is aware that this is the next logical step in her career development, a step that includes a nice pay rise, a prestige company car, more travel and other benefits. She knows, then, that she needs to stick to her new position and learn how to manage people.
Many people, when they are first promoted into management, are insecure about their authority and, as a result, tend to make one of two mistakes. Either they are too authoritarian or they are too nice.
Authoritarians hide their insecurity by being demanding, rude and unbending. They believe that if they order people around enough, their authority will eventually be recognised. They are unforgiving of mistakes and quick to pass blame to direct reports. If you've ever had such a boss, you know how ineffective this approach is. Sure, people do what the boss demands, but they don't respect the boss and are not particularly motivated.
More sensitive people who are too insecure in their new management positions tend to be too nice. They want their team members to like them and so they are reluctant to give orders and even more reluctant to criticise or reprimand a direct report who does something wrong. The nice guy sometimes does tasks himself because he is afraid to ask others.
Nice guys may be liked, but they are less likely to be respected as superiors. They do not give enough guidance to their direct reports and, as a result, their direct reports are not as productive as they could be. Worse, some of them will realise that they can take advantage of their nice guy managers by working less hard, taking time off or spending work time on personal projects.
Neither the authoritarian nor the good guy manager is a good boss. Both are unlikely to get respect from their direct reports. Neither is likely to be an inspirational boss.
Instead, you want to be an awesome manager. Let's see how you can do that.
People Sort of Want You to Be Awesome
Most people would love to work under an inspirational leader who inspires her team to greatness. If you are their manager, they would love you to be such a leader − sort of.
The problem is your direct reports are emotional human beings. Some of them may have felt they deserved the promotion more than you did. This is doubly true if you are younger than they are, have had less time in the company than they have or, I am sorry to say, if you are a woman among a team of mostly men.
If most or all of your team is attempting to sabotage your authority, speak to them as a team.
Sara's initial enthusiasm for management is quelled by resistance from the team. Most of the members are older than her and had been at the company longer. Some of the men, although they would claim to be enlightened, simply hated having a young woman manager.
Realising that the team would go nowhere fast if these attitudes continued to affect behaviour, Sara called a meeting.
"I realise that many of you are unhappy that I have been promoted to manager of this unit. Most of you are more experienced than I am and have been here longer than I have been. However, the position has been given to me and we all need to make the best of it. If the team fails to perform, you may have the dubious pleasure of saying, 'I knew Sara would be a lousy manager', but that is not going to do your future at this company any good is it? Would it not be better if everyone knew how you helped me and our team succeed?
"In fact, if we perform well as a team; if we not only meet, but exceed goals; if we innovate like heroes, we all look good and that will stand you in good steed for promotion to even better places than the one I am sitting in now.
"I am lucky to have such a talented group of people helping me in this unit. I know I have a lot to learn and I hope each of you will help me in that goal. I also know that with your experience and expertise, our team can accomplish great things. I want you to know that I will give credit where credit is due. I will ensure people upstairs will be clear on your contribution to the unit and the company
"I will meet with each of you individually over the next weeks and I want these meetings to be brutally honest. If you have issues with me, let us deal with them and get them out of the way. Then we can discuss how you can best help you and team succeed."
There is a story of a traveller in the middle ages. He passes a mason at work and asks, "What are you doing?"
"Laying bricks," says the mason.
Later, he passes another mason. "What are you doing?" he asks.
"Making a brick wall," says the mason.
Eventually, he passes a third mason. "What are you doing?" he asks.
"Building a cathedral," says the mason with pride.
The first mason can do little more than follow orders. The second has more information about the final goal, but only knows his place in it. He's building a wall, but is not clear on how that fits into the big picture.
The third mason knows that he is part of a team building a cathedral. He can take pride in the team's overall goal and ensure that his part fits. Moreover, if he has ideas about other aspects of building a cathedral, he can share those ideas with other team members.
Likewise, if you share overall goals with the team, each member has a clearer idea of how her bit fits into the big picture. You also enable your direct reports to make suggestions outside their area of expertise.
You basically have three options when it comes to motivating people. You can motivate people through positive reinforcement by acknowledging and praising their accomplishments. You can motivate them through negative reinforcement by criticising their mistakes or you can avoid motivating them at all which, frankly, is demotivating. Let's look at the first two options.
If you tend to praise your direct reports' positive accomplishment and contributions to the team, and that praise is respected, then you motivate your team members to work harder to win praise. They are more likely to go that extra mile (or 1.6km here in Europe), they are more likely to take on additional responsibility, they are more likely to contribute ideas and they are more likely to attempt to solve problems rather than pass the blame. In other words, positive reinforcement encourages positive productivity.
If you tend to criticise mistakes and performance you deem insufficient, you motivate your team members to work to avoid doing anything that might lead to criticism and blame. Team members become reluctant to take on personal responsibility because they know that if anything goes wrong, they will take the blame. Worse, they know that they may merely be reprimanded for taking action without seeking their authoritarian boss's authorisation first.
Team members are reluctant to go that extra mile, because there will be no praise for doing so. There will only be criticism if something goes wrong. They won't share ideas for fear of criticism and they'll try to avoid blame for problems rather than attempt to solve those problems.
When people act to avoid criticism and reprimand, they do minimal work, avoid risk at all costs and keep their heads down.
When people act to receive praise, they are keen to be recognised, willing to take reasonable risks and willing to put more effort into their work.
How do you want to motivate your team?
Needless-to-say, you should not restrict yourself to praise and only praise. It will sometimes be necessary to reprimand team members and criticise mistakes. But, if you make it a habit to recognise good work and be generous with praise, you will have a far more motivated team than if you focus on criticism or avoid feedback all together. Moreover, your negative feedback will be more respected if it is the exception rather than the rule.
When promoted to management, many competent people find it hard to delegate tasks, especially those tasks they know they can do well, perhaps even better than their direct reports. Nevertheless, it is critical that you learn to delegate tasks, and trust those to whom the tasks have been assigned, or you will find yourself seriously overworked and your team members bored and frustrated.
Assign tasks to your direct reports as appropriate. Generally, you will want to play to people's strengths. That said, you will also want to ensure your people get a variety of challenges in their work and get the opportunity to take on new tasks where they may discover new strengths.
You should also distribute work fairly, ensuring no one is overworked and no one is left bored. In particular, watch out that you do not overload female direct reports with excessive administrative work. I've seen this happen in many organisations. Whether it is because people believe women are better at administrative tasks or are less likely to complain when given dull work, I do not know. But you will only demotivate the women on your team if you dump all the administrative work in their laps while giving the more intellectually challenging tasks to the men.
Communicate Expected Results Rather than Process
When you assign tasks to one of your team members, explain results the results you expect and let her work out how to achieve those results. This is far more respectful and challenging to her than if you give her step-by-step instructions on how to complete each assigned task.
That said, be sure to make it clear that she can come to you if she has questions about the process. Better still, direct her to a colleague who can also help her.
When someone on your team takes on a new task, she may will be very slow. She may use an inefficient process. She may even make some mistakes. If you are accomplished with such work, you may be tempted to jump in and help her. You may even decide it is faster to do it yourself than to explain how to do it.
Resist these urges. If you grab away a task while your direct report is trying to work out a method of doing it, you belittle her, you give yourself more work and you reduce efficiency. Sure, she may be slow the first time she does a particular task. But you probably were too.
Give her time to work out her best way of accomplishing a task and one day she may have an even better process than you had. And that is good for the team and the organisation.
Let Them Make Mistakes
People learn from their mistakes. When you believe a direct report is about to make a mistake, think about the potential consequences of the mistake. If they are trivial, let her make the mistake and the work out how to fix it. She will learn far more that way than if you tell her how to do a task or warn her that her method will not work.
Consider the costs of allowing small mistakes to happen to be a part of your training budget.
One of the hardest things for a new manager to do is to reprimand direct reports who perform badly or who cause trouble. As a result, the new manager often allows poor or incompetent behaviour to go on too long, while becoming increasingly frustrated by it. Eventually, this results in an explosion and possible rash behaviour.
Reprimand needs to be structured and I recommend a three step approach.
- Have a formal meeting with the person in question and explain your concerns about her behavour, actions or performance. Ask about and listen to her side of the story and consider whether it affects your understanding of the problem. Then, agree to a course of action. After the meeting, sum up in writing your concerns, her explanation and the course of action. Send the document to the trouble-maker. This is important because if the problem is not solved, you want to be sure to document your actions and any agreements. If the situation continues, call another meeting. Go over your agreement from the previous meeting and ask why it has not been followed. Make it clear that this the last warning and what the consequences will be (usually dismissal). Explain precisely what your ill behaving direct report is expected to do and give her a clear time frame for action. There must be no room for question. Again, document everything and give her a copy of the document.
- If the situation still has not improved, initiate the consequences − probably dismissal proceedings.
BHowever, before you do this, contact your boss or the human resources department and request a meeting. In the meeting, identify the problem employee, the problem and your course of action. Most likely they will let you go ahead. Very possibly they will offer you advice. In the case of potentially firing an employee, there may be protocols that must be followed. Incorporate these into your action.
When I ran an Internet-multimedia production company in the 90s, I had to fire two exceptionally incompetent people (on two different occasions). They were having an adverse effect on the company and frustrating colleagues. Still I hated having to fire them.
When the Going Gets Tough
Almost inevitably, there will be hard times. You may face economic slow down. Your company may run into financial troubles. An unexpected disaster may wreck havoc on your business operations.
When the times are bad, everyone in the organisation feels it. People become nervous about their jobs and about the future. If problems are external to the company − for example, a global economic slowdown − people will worry more. They know that if they lose their jobs with your employer, it will he hard to find work elsewhere.
Worse, these worries are going to affect your team's productivity and performance. When people are worried about their jobs, they cannot concentrate on those jobs as much as they should.
As a result, you should communicate openly and honestly with your team. If there are likely to be lay-offs, let them know so they can look for alternative work. If there may be a move to a new location, be clear about it. The more people know about an unknown situation, the more comfortable they feel. Knowing that their office will shut down in six months is not nice, but it is better than spending every day of six months unsure about the future of the office.
Being a perceptive person, you've doubtless noticed that the theme that runs through all of the advice here is to respect your direct reports. Not surprisingly, surveys − such as one by the Society for Human Resource Management (link to PDF document) earlier this year − indicates that respect is something employees value more than high salary, job security and even the type of work they do.
If you want to get the best out of your team, respect each of them as intelligent, capable and awesome people. And, if you are not sure how to act, choose the most respectful option. That will not always be the nicest option. For example, if an employee does a mediocre job on a project, it may be easier and nicer not to say anything. But an honest critical appraisal with advice on how to do better next time would be more respectful.
Even if you have a challenging start as a team leader; even if you must reprimand a team member or three; even if you have to lead the team though difficult times, if you are a respectful leader, your team members, your colleagues and your superiors will come also to respect you.
Advice and Answers
Have you run into people management troubles not covered in this article? Contact me and tell me about them. I would be delighted to advise .