how not to be a terrible manager (pt 2)


Let me tell you a story. There was a time, years ago, when I allowed stress to consume the whole of my life. I’d collapse, face first, into bed and wake the following morning to the same tedium, the same anxieties that had managed to bloom overnight. Although I do my best thinking early in the morning, I found myself staying up into the gloaming, drafting presentations and sending hundreds of emails. Come morning, I subsisted on multiple cups of coffee as I proceeded to send more emails, fine tune drafts, funnel requests and the whole time I hadn’t realized that I was driving my team bonkers. Over a period of a few months I watched perfectly normal, exceptionally bright women worn down by work. I watched as they stared at screens (multiple phones, desktops, laptops), and the rare moments they did glance away, I noticed a hollowness in their eyes. It took me a long time to realize that this all wrong–there’s a difference between working hard and paying one’s dues versus wearing people into the ground. People in their 20s, scratch that, no one should be forced to work this way. It took me an even longer time to understand that I was partly to blame. I earned the respect of 20+ direct reports and they assumed that the pace I’d kept was normal, that it was necessary to accelerate, succeed. And for a while, they might have been right–I gained clients, grew revenue, made partner–but at a cost of diminishing returns. There’s a fixed amount of time during the day and a fixed amount of energy we all carry, and at one point we’re just going to run on empty. We’re not machines–at one point, even the boldest of lights will flicker and flare out.

Towards the end of my tenure, leading an agency of 150+ people, I couldn’t think straight. I no longer had creative ideas, instead I found ingenious ways to recycle and regurgitate mediocrity. Soon I started to see that the once bright shining lights followed suit or simply left for other departments, other jobs. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned as a manager, and subsequently as a leader, is that people, regardless of whether they’re conscious of it, will model their behavior off of you.

6. Set an example. Your team models behavior off of you, so act right. I used to laugh during celebrity interviews. Picture the scenario if you will: celebrity gains massive fame during his/her childhood. They sing all the catchy songs, they deconstruct fashion trends, and their missteps are cute gaffs. Inevitably, these children grew into teenagers into adults and they’re desperate to shed their innocence as if it were an outdated piece of clothing they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. They wear less, and their gaffs become trending topics. They give interviews where they snap, saying they’re people just living their lives, that they never asked for the job of role model. While this may be true, while some may shirk the burden of having to shape the lives of strangers, the fact remains that when people admire you they see you as a role model. They’ll emulate you–they way you move and speak. You are who they follow.

And the workplace is no exception. Whether you manage one intern or a team of 40, realize that most people will take cues from you. You’re constantly under surveillance whether you like it or not. They’ll observe how you interact not only with other team members, but with your boss. They’ll watch you speak to clients and manage conflict, and they’ll try to figure out ways to put their spin on what they see. It’s inevitable, and it’s a behavior that stems from childhood, our parents being our first models. As I’ve stated previously, managing others is probably the hardest part of your job. And it starts with managing yourself. From HBR’s “Are You a Good Boss–or a Great One?”:

Management begins with you, because who you are as a person, what you think and feel, the beliefs and values that drive your actions, and especially how you connect with others all matter to the people you must influence. Every day those people examine every interaction with you, your every word and deed, to uncover your intentions. They ask themselves, “Can I trust this person?” How hard they work, their level of personal commitment, their willingness to accept your influence, will depend in large part on the qualities they see in you.

Be the manager that you want your team members to admire, emulate and make their own. Listen and observe and take feedback on your style and effectiveness. Every quarter, I did an informal, honest assessment of my efficacy as a manager. I asked myself:

a. Is my team helping me meet revenue and margin targets? How they are they doing this? At what cost? How could I make the path to our goals easier, more effective? Am I inviting their feedback? Am I acting on it?

b. Do they seem fulfilled in their work? Am I checking in with them frequently, asking about their workload and bandwidth? If they’re struggling, am I giving them the tools they need to be successful? Are they referring employees (the best sign that people like where they work)? Do they have a life outside of work and do they talk about it? One of the most powerful job interview questions my friend Ellen mentioned to me over lunch was this: Tell me about your employees hobbies? Because if a manager doesn’t know if/how their team is enjoying their life, that’s a problem.

c. Am I starting to see trends in aggregate? Are they working longer hours? Are they snapping at people in meetings? Then observe how I’ve managed myself in the same time frame? Luckily, I had a mentor who would give me feedback EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. about my management style. At first I was annoyed, but then I realized that his guidance was a gift–he was taking time out of his schedule to make me a better manager, build me into a capable leader, and now, in retrospect, I’m grateful for all the times he pulled me into his office to tell me how I could have handled a situation differently (translation: better).

Perform this assessment and invite 360 feedback (formally or anonymously), and show that you respect their feedback and a plan for how you’ll be more effective in your role based on the feedback that is appropriate for you.


Which leads me to my next point. We’re human. We make mistakes. Sometimes we’re tired; we have to deal with people who drain the life right out of our bodies, and we allow that stress to impact how we treat others. Sometimes we don’t act right. And that’s okay. As long as you ACKNOWLEDGE, LEARN, MODIFY.

7. Knowing that managing up is just as critical as managing down. Sometimes you’re not acting right and you need to let your team know that, publicly. Be open to feedback and change.: I was once in a meeting with a direct report who had a habit of shutting down other team member’s contributions when she felt they were wrong. Let’s call her Sarah. I remember a rather timid team member (let’s call her Cathy) who offered an opinion on a topic (I was so glad Cathy finally spoke up! my mentorship was working!), and then her contribution was cut short by Sarah, who didn’t have a problem letting her know that she was wrong. I was livid. In response, I used my authority to shoot down Sarah and the whole team fell silent. In the moment, I realized what I was doing was wrong and I suspect the team did as well.

Within an hour, I approached Sarah in a conference room and apologized. She burst into tears and said that my lashing out was not okay, and I acknowledged and agreed that it wasn’t. I proceeded to explain that Cathy probably felt the same way, having experienced, on a smaller scale, what Sarah just experienced. We all deserve to be heard and respected, even if we’re “wrong”. We learned that we need to act from a place of grace in how we treat others, as a reflection of how we wish to be treated.

Later, I apologized to the team in a follow-up meeting. I pointed out that my lashing out at Sarah wasn’t okay–that wasn’t an appropriate way to deal with frustration. After the meeting, Sarah approached me and shared that she had apologized privately to Cathy. Going forward, both of us modified our behavior by allowing team members to contribute without interruption, and we framed our feedback as a way to build upon, rather than erode, the contribution. That’s a terrific idea! Have you thought about how we can add X to Y?

a. Acknowledge your misstep either through your own self-awareness, through performance reviews or on-the-spot feedback from your team (if you’ve built that trust). Don’t rush to get defensive, to erase the validity of someone else’s feelings. Acknowledge that what you’ve said or done has hurt, embarrassed, or bothered someone else.

b. Learn how you could make the situation better. Sometimes it’s as simple as an apology or an invitation for how you could have handled the situation behavior.

c. Modify your behavior as a result of the incident. Sometimes the biggest cliches ring the truest: actions speak louder than words. Show people that you are making an effort to change your behavior as a result of the incident. I should also say that apologizing or admitting fault IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS. Rather, it means you’re human, fallible, and you care deeply enough about those around you to adapt to constructive feedback. Don’t whitewash and downplay incidents or get defensive, because I guarantee that one incident will build into bad behavior. And you know who loses? YOU and YOUR TEAM. So set down your ego and listen and learn from your mistakes.

In the final installment of my management tips, I’ll address the following:
8. Toeing the line. Be compassionate. Mentor, but don’t be a best friend or get wasted with your direct report.
9. Managing conflict. How not to punch yourself in the face, or punch your team members.
10. Profile right. How to make sure you understand how people work so you can manage them effectively.

Have you read part one of my management tips?

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo

5 thoughts on “how not to be a terrible manager (pt 2)

  1. Although it may have been late, I’m glad you learned. Life is impossible when work becomes it. And if you are in charge and exemplify this, then your team will follow. No longer will it be you alone missing out, it will be everyone. Thanks, as always, for sharing


  2. Thank you so much for this post. So true that people will model their behavior after you. And I’ve definitely been in the same place as far as high stress levels and running on empty and am doing my best to change that now. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned.


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