Managing employees – with their diverse personalities, responsibilities, ambitions and pet peeves – can sometimes feel a bit like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There is an art to leading staff. Here are ten tips for managing people, and doing it well.
1. Acknowledge that managing people is different from your core technical skills, and recognize that people management is essential to your own career growth. If you’re not good at it, work at getting better. Not only will you be a better executive, you’ll also be a better person.
2. Realize that the role of the manager is just that: a role. It sets you apart and requires you to make decisions and take responsibility. Being a great boss doesn’t mean being your subordinates’ friend. It means providing direction and then doing everything you can to make sure your subordinates are allowed to do their jobs.
3. Find the right distance to manage from. Micro-managers are too close; this lowers trust, dis-empowers subordinates and destroys their motivation. Absentee managers are too far away; they provide insufficient guidance, don’t keep track of work being done, and aren’t there to listen and provide answers to questions that come up. The optimal distance is in between. Provide direction and guidance, let your subordinates know you’re keeping track from your own vantage point, and check in with them periodically.
4. Make your subordinates’ careers a priority. The better they do, the better you look; becoming known as an incubator of talent makes you more valuable to your company. Ask your subordinates what their career goals are, and tell them you’ll do everything you can to promote them, whether in your department or elsewhere. Then take action to make good on that promise, like putting individuals on projects that will help them grow (see Ten tips for managing projects well). You’ll have allies for life — and you will have done the right thing for both your subordinates and your company.
5. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge. At a psychological level, people value acknowledgement of their good work more than they value money (though it should never be a substitute). Make acknowledgement a routine part of your communication with subordinates; without acknowledgement, they have no way of knowing what they’ve done right, which means your feedback is incomplete and misleadingly negative. Be accurate in your acknowledgement; this gives weight to your praise. Frequent acknowledgement also makes discussions easier when problems occur.
6. First coach, then counsel, finally discipline. Coaching is the proactive encouragement of mutually agreed-upon, positive outcomes (see How to coach someone you manage). Do that first. Counseling is close attention to a problem identified by you, with specific requests for change. Do that if it becomes necessary. Discipline is punishment as an incentive for change you’ve previously requested and not gotten, or as preparation for firing someone. Do that only when you’ve done the other two first. This is a good-faith approach that gives you something to refer to at every stage. It also means that no disciplinary action (at the review stage or otherwise) will come as a surprise — the latter is a definite no-no and a sign of managerial failure.
7. Document your work. Managers are accountable for their actions with respect to their subordinates, and this is as it should be. It’s important that you be able to show what you did and when you did it. In good times, this will help demonstrate how well you did your job. In bad times, it will protect you and/or your company.
8. Work by agreement. You can’t expect your subordinates to be on board with every goal, but you can and should expect them to abide by company decisions. Make agreements with those who work for you. You can refer to those agreements if subordinates don’t come through. But that’s actually less likely to happen if they’ve made explicit agreements with you; when people have said out loud what they will do, the chances are higher that they will carry out those actions.
9. Translate, don’t channel. Passing on everything you get from above, without alteration, isn’t helpful. Recast and re-frame direction from above so that subordinates are well-informed yet remain optimistic, and can see what downward-flowing decisions will mean to their own work situations.
10. Be objective. This has several aspects. For example, be consistent and constructive in your communication; the emotional objectivity required will give you a solid foundation and make you appear reliable to others, a key factor in your work relationships (see What is the Shadow Job and why is it important?). Being objective also means not playing favorites; this requires emotional discipline on your part but is important for group morale. Finally, being objective means observing yourself as well as others — another way of playing fair, which is what objectivity leads to in the realm of action.