Deathbed advice to managers

I’m a bit late with this but I didn’t discover Etienne’s Happy Employee blog until yesterday. A few months ago, he asked the question, what are the 5 things you would say to the managers in your company if you were just about to die. It sounded like an interesting idea so I decided to have a go too.

Most people who responded to his post offered advice to their colleagues, rather than saying stuff like, “Ha Ha, did you know the CEO has been screwing your wife for the past three years,” or “Did I tell you? The photographs of you from the last away-day are with my lawyer, to be released in the event of my death.”

So I shall treat the challenge in the same spirit. Here are Rick’s five pieces of advice for managers.

1. Know yourself. This may sound obvious and I take it as read that most managers know their own strengths. Just as important, though, is an understanding of your own emotional responses and, specifically, what triggers your fight/flight reaction. There are certain sorts of people, behaviours or situations that push your buttons. Some will send you into fight mode, where you either get angry and take them on or resort to passive-aggressive behaviour like sarcasm. Others cause you to take flight out of fear, or frustration. Flight often manifests itself as avoidance or checking out. Often the same behaviour will cause both flight and fight, depending on the power of the person displaying that behaviour. Fight/flight is one of our primeval responses. You weigh up the danger and choose whether to stand your ground or run. Most of us, whether consciously or not, do this in work situations too. 

Why does that colleague always seem to get the better of you in the weekly meeting? Why did you say nothing about your manager’s behaviour for weeks until one day it got too much and you just blew up? Why have you been avoiding answering that email that has been sitting in your in box for the last three days? What is it about that meeting that makes you check out half-way through? Why are you dreading that appraisal with that oh-so-needy member of your team?

Most of us avoid confrontation and difficult conversations until it is too late, then we often over-compensate by flipping over into inappropriately aggressive behaviour. If you at least understand what makes you angry or why you avoid things then you have a chance of being able to deal with it. Your fights and confrontations can be controlled and more productive and you can catch yourself before you go into your default avoidance mode when something gets too difficult. Knowing yourself enables you to be honest with yourself and you need to do that before you can be honest with other people.

2. Watch and Listen. Of course, you all do that don’t you? But do you notice what goes on beneath the surface? All the time, your colleagues are giving subconscious hints and signals. A conversation between two people will reveal whether there is tension between them, if you listen hard enough. You can tell when someone has reservations about a proposed course of action, even if they say they are one hundred percent committed. Although most organisations claim to be open and honest, few really are. Many people will keep their views to themselves, or express them in code, for fear of being seen as negative.

Be honest, how many management problems in your career have come as a complete surprise? When someone ends up being disciplined for poor performance, I bet you’d had an inkling that they were not up to scratch for some time. When that project suddenly lurched over time and budget, in truth, you had suspected that something like that might happen but you’d just never got around to investigating it.

Most of us choose to ignore these intuitive messages because acknowledging them means we might have to tackle the problems that we know are there. We prefer instead to hope they will go away but, usually, they don’t. Keep your eyes and ears open for nuances, there is a wealth of information around you if you just stopped to see and hear.

Which brings me neatly to my third point.

3. Trust your intuition. You may dismiss your gut-feelings as irrational but, chances are, if you have been in management for a while, they are based on solid experience. I like the analogy of a goalkeeper saving a penalty. If he waited until he was absolutely sure which way the ball was going to go, it would be too late to do anything about it. He has to make a decision based on his intuition which has been honed by his years of experience. So it is with management. Most of us like to make sure we have enough data before acting but this can become a way of avoiding taking uncomfortable decisions.

At some level, you already know that Jack is doing freelance work while pretending to work from home, or that Kate is out of her depth but too proud to say so, or that the aggro between Paul and David is sapping the team’s morale. Trust your gut instinct and tackle it now. If you wait, it will get a whole lot worse.

4. Look at what people do, as well as what they say. This is especially useful for managing upwards. If your boss wants you to get involved in a high-profile internal project and assures you it will be good exposure for you, but the high bonuses in your firm always go to those with the most external client work, you might want to suggest that someone else does his project. If someone says he is a supportive manager, look at what really happens when one of his team does something to break the rules. Was the person supported or were they hung out to dry?

Words are fine, but it’s what people actually do that counts. Sounds obvious but it’s surprising how often even old hands can be taken in by a bit of soft-soaping.

5. Don’t neglect your own development. Well, I would say that wouldn’t I, being an ex-HR manager. Doing all the above effectively requires some practice and some time to develop your skills in a safe environment. Too many managers get to a senior level and then assume that they no longer need to update their skills and capabilities. Some still seem to regard the suggestion that they need development as a slur. If you don’t keep yourself up to date, both in technical and behavioural skills, you will be overtaken by those who do.

6. Be visible. (Come on, you knew I was going to break the rules didn’t you?) Management visibility is crucial to motivating a team and maintaining its momentum. If you are office based, get out and walk about. Get to know your people in an informal way. Ask them what they are doing and if they need help. If it becomes normal for you to be seen wandering about talking to people, it will be much easier if and when you do need to ask questions about something more important. Walking about can be hard for the more introverted manager but, I can assure you, if you sit in your office messing about with spreadsheets so you can avoid dealing with your staff (see point 1) eventually things will start to go wrong around you. Believe me I’ve seen it happen. You can’t lead people if you are invisible.

OK, is that enough now? Can I slope off to the pub and die in peace? Come on, it is Friday afternoon….

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3 Responses to Deathbed advice to managers

  1. Okay, you definitely earned your couple of pints ;-)

    I’ve added your entry to the companion page. Thanks!

  2. Rick says:

    Couple of pints?

    Etienne, have you ever been out drinking with an Englishman on a Friday night?

  3. THE ARGUIST says:

    Do you waffle on like that at work ? None of your surmissions are even approaching reality. Many managers assume they have all these indeterminate skills, when in fact the team are much more productive without all that tosh ! People with real people skills don’t analyse them to captive audiences. One of the strengths of those ( few and far between) people is that they are well aware that many of “their people (!)” are far more skilled and communicatively talented than they are themselves. They are also often aware that many of “their people” are only acting respect for airy-fairy management stuff, ………..

    And have you ever noticed everyone skiddaddling up to the other end of the bar at a rate of knots when the “manager” arrives, murmuring to each other something along the lines of “Look Out. Here comes the Nerd ” ! Except the ones who know the nerd will “up” their appraisal if they stay where they are and giggle their way through the hour it takes the manager to down his half a pint, or more likely her “small fruit juice and “1 can’t stay long because hubby has an important meeting, so I have to drive home”. .

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