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Change Work March 2013

What's so hard about being a manager?

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

I remember one lesson from the very first management training I attended.  It's quite a few years ago so I've forgotten most of what we did, but this has stuck.  We each had to list the things that motivated us in our jobs and then, separately, list what we thought motivated the people below us in the company hierarchy.  Everyone on the course wrote down two quite different sets of factors.  We all declared ourselves to be mostly concerned with job satisfaction and wanting to do worthwhile work, whilst material rewards were much less important.  For our subordinates, we all assumed that they were motivated primarily by money and weren't too bothered about the intangibles.

Of course, when we reflected on this and discussed it, we realised that it's much more likely that most people are motivated by pretty much the same things, irrespective of their job or position in the pecking order. And those things tend to belong to the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  (I'm not sure how this exercise would work today.  Are young people starting out in their careers now more aware and less prejudiced than my generation was?)

So that was an important insight for me, one of the first inklings I had that this management stuff was quite interesting!  It helped me to do better in my management role by addressing my problem of harbouring a serious false assumption.  A problem I didn't know I had!

The problem I did know I had was that I was very uncomfortable with certain aspects of managing people.  Specifically, I felt ill-equipped for (and didn't like):

I didn't know then that you could learn to do these things effectively and with confidence, and probably wouldn't have been interested if I had known.  My strategy was to avoid awkward situations wherever possible (because, as John Cleese said, "Every Englishman's ambition is to get through life without being seriously embarrassed!").  I thought I could fulfil my role by concentrating on the technical work that my team was doing - and didn't realise that I also had a responsibility for the people themselves.

This mindset was disturbed by some feedback that my own boss gave me.  Ironically, he was thought of by most people as being cold and task-focused, so I was very surprised when he told me that one of my team had been upset by my lack of sympathy towards him and the family problem that was causing him some worry.  I had worries of my own and hadn't wanted to be bothered by his!

Perhaps I'd been unconsciously modelling myself on the boss I thought I had.  I certainly didn't know what to make of the sensitive side he'd just revealed!

For most technical people, the first management job will be to lead a small team - probably the team they were a member of themselves.  So maybe the role doesn't look very different from what you were doing before.  You think that it's a matter of continuing to do your old job plus telling others what to do.  You might accept that you're required to help team members when they have problems - after all, as the leader you must be the expert in everything mustn't you? - but that's a long way from taking on board the fact that you are first and foremost responsible for the team and how it works.  If your job is to make sure that the team delivers, then you have to concern yourself with the processes that are being followed and with the availability of resources.  But you also have to take care of the people: their working conditions, their working relationships, their skills and competencies, their wellbeing.

Have you been trained for any of this?  Do you think that your own manager sees their role to be about building a happy team?

In the end it often comes down to personal preferences.  Managers who are themselves "people-people" will take an interest in the team's wellbeing and will get involved with individuals and their personal development.  They'll be aware of the emotive issues and will probably be skilled in managing them.

But in my experience they are a minority and don't set the organisational culture.  So we still see the technically best people being promoted into leadership roles that they then struggle with - whilst their team suffers under an "unsympathetic" manager!