The proven basics that will make you a better manager

If you're trying to be a better manager, it's likely you're one of the nearly 90% of leaders who are undermanaging. That's not a judgment, that's just math.

Undermanagement is not a sign of laziness, apathy, or ineptitude. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Most undermanagement is the result of bad advice, the constant churn of leadership fads. The leaders and supervisors I see struggling every day are usually those who care the most about their people and the work. They're just thinking about things the wrong way.


Popular myths about management are holding leaders back

There are several common management myths which are to blame for this epidemic of undermanagement. Gurus and coaches (yes, people like me) are responsible for propagating most of them. The problem is that most of these myths sound good, or seem like intuitive wisdom, but are really just getting in your way.

The most pernicious myth is this: that the way to empower people and facilitate their best work is to leave them alone to manage themselves. If you've ever had a boss who didn't understand the finer details of your work, you can understand why this myth makes sense. Of course, there are managers who overcomplicate things and push for suboptimal results because they don't really understand what needs to be done or what they're asking for. But that doesn't mean being hands-off is the solution. To be blunt, it's a cop out.

The problem is this: self-managed teams, no matter how great their performance, inevitably run into issues they cannot solve alone, for one reason or another. Most often, a lack of resources, authority, or connections is to blame. In such situations, it's up to the boss to figure things out. And without on-the-ground knowledge from the team, the manager's job is that much harder. An anxious scramble ensues. Contributing factors that could have been caught and avoided earlier suddenly rise to the surface. One big roadblock usually reveals itself to be a bunch of smaller problems waiting to be solved. Everyone's productivity, energy, and motivation are squandered.

This is the vicious cycle of undermanagement which traps so many well-meaning leaders. A lack of engaged management up-front only pushes that management responsibility into the future. By that time, it's very difficult for anyone to figure out what exactly went wrong, or why. That makes the cycle an inevitability.

No one wants to work in such an unstable environment. People quit managers, not jobs, right?


Step up and own it: strong managers are better managers

Being a strong manger doesn't mean micromanaging. It doesn't mean being an inflexible jerk. It doesn't mean everyone better listen to you, or else. In fact, strong management is quite the opposite. It's about committing to and engaging in ongoing dialogues about the work, every step of the way.

Dialogues require give and take. It's not enough to listen to what your people need and be there for them, although that's a huge part of the management equation that's often overlooked. People need guidance and direction. Everyone does better work when there are clearly defined boundaries around that work. It's all about the paradox of choice--while we might believe that being presented with endless options makes it easier to choose one that we are happy with, having an abundance of options actually requires more effort to make a decision. Rather than empowering us to make better choices, unlimited access to information often leads to indecision and analysis paralysis.

The solution to undermanagement is a commitment to the eight fundamentals of strong, highly-engaged management.


The eight fundamentals back to better management

1. Get in the habit of managing every day. Stop managing by special occasion! The sweet spot for most well-performing teams is to meet individually with everyone at least once every two weeks. Less than that, and you run a much higher risk of being out of the loop when you need to be on top of the details.

Keep one-on-ones brief, routine, and ask really good questions:

  • What do you need from me?
  • What is your plan? What steps will you follow?
  • How long will each step take?

2. Talk like a performance coach. The best coaches may have that special ability to inspire people, but effective coaching is a skill anyone can practice. The number one thing to practice to become better at coaching as a manager is being specific: talk about work and performance using describing language, rather than naming language. Don't just tell someone their work doesn't meet expectations. Be specific. Give people actionable steps to take to improve the quality of their work.

3. Take it one person at a time--customize your approach. Everyone you manage needs a different kind of support from you. For each person you manage, answer the following:

  • WHO is this person at work?
  • WHY do I need to manage this person?
  • WHAT do I need to talk about with this person?
  • HOW do I need to talk to this person?
  • WHEN should I talk to this person?
  • WHERE should I talk to this person?

4. Make accountability a process, not a slogan. Most managers don't have an established way of holding people accountable. Creating real accountability follows this basic framework:

  • Spell out clear expectations. Make sure everyone knows, in no uncertain terms, what is expected of them.
  • Define what a good job, bad job, and great job look like. Then there is less room for interpretation on performance down the line.
  • Establish next steps or a project plan. Make sure you and your employees are no the same page from the start.
  • Tie rewards, and consequences, to the performance expectations you agreed on together.

5. Tell people what to do, and yes, how to do it. If someone is struggling with the work, it is up to the manager to help them! Don’t wait until someone has demonstrated a long track record of failure to start coaching their performance. Jump in when they need you from the start, with whatever level of support makes sense for the employee and the task in question. Provide more guidance at the beginning and scale back accordingly.

6. Track performance every step of the way. Once you’ve spent time spelling out expectations and guidelines up front, you only need to be as involved in monitoring performance as is necessary for you to course correct if needed:

  • Watch employees work. Spot-check an employee doing their actual work. this works best for jobs such as manufacturing, nursing, or construction.
  • Ask for an account. In every one-on-one conversation with every employee, ask for an account of what that person has done since your last conversation.
  • Help employees use self-monitoring tools. Work with them to develop checklists or project aids.
  • Review work in progress. Ask for early drafts, or samples or work, and make sure you really review that work in detail.
  • Ask around a little. Get opinions from coworkers and other managers.

7. Solve small problems before they turn into big ones. If you are engaged with your direct reports in ongoing, consistent one-on-one dialogues, then you are already doing the hardest part of the work necessary to stay on top of small problems. The second step is simply being confident enough to step in and make sure things are on the right track. Most managers would rather not engage in difficult conversations or confrontations with employees. The problem is that, if you don’t have some difficult conversations early on, you are guaranteed to have tougher ones in the future.

8. Do more for some people and less for others based on performance. Don’t buy into the myth that fairness means treating everyone the same, regardless of their performance. You have limited resources with which to reward people, so do more for the people who are giving you their absolute best. Of course, the key is that you are providing the sufficient guidance, direction, support, and coaching necessary for everyone on your team to have opportunities to earn what they truly deserve.

Differential rewards only work if you adopt the philosophy of Control, Timing, and Customization:

  • Control. Put people in control of their own rewards by spelling out exactly what they must do in order to earn them.
  • Timing. The closer in proximity the reward is to the performance in question, the more powerful the reward will be.
  • Customization. The more you are able to identify non-financial rewards that matter to each individual employee, the greater a value proposition you can make to them in exchange for their best performance.

Improve your management game

We have a host of free resources you can use to learn more about undermanagement and the fundamentals of becoming a better manager:

And if you need more support, we're happy to help. Contact us to learn more about solutions for you or your team.


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