The Problem with the Manager Mindset
Mike Coffey, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
For an upcoming episode of my new podcast, Good Morning, HR, I visited with Terri Swain, a seasoned HR consultant who specializes in affirmative action and employee relations issues.
(Note: “Seasoned” is a moving target meaning anyone who is at least one day older than me.)
Terri and I spoke about her experience as an investigator during the pandemic.
Through the pandemic, she said, she saw a sharp spike in discrimination complaints against managers. Very often, comparative analysis demonstrated that the behavior wasn’t discriminatory—the manager was a jerk (we use stronger language in the podcast) to everyone.
While Terri’s episode of the podcast won’t be released until August 12th, it is hardly a spoiler to point out that, well, most managers suck when it comes to actually managing people.
And when things get rough, that becomes really apparent.
Back at the beginning of the pandemic, when employees were hurriedly throwing files and equipment necessary to do their jobs in boxes, learning to use Zoom (“Bob, you’re still on mute.”), and figuring out how to get their jobs done while educating their children and spending waaay to much time with their significant others, I participated in a panel discussion about managing a remote workplace.
My prediction was that those organizations with highly-engaged employees would be fine while those that “managed” their employees in order to maintain productivity would struggle.
Perhaps your experience has been different but that is largely what I’ve seen over the last year and a half.
To manage something is to manipulate it so as to reach a predictable outcome.
When we tell someone their job is to manage people, we assume that people are like the rest of means of production: equipment, raw material, energy, etc.
But people aren’t so predictable.
Greg Crabtree, author of one of the best books on business finance, Simple Numbers, often says that people are the one part of your business that shows up every day with an attitude.
Some days it may be a good attitude. Others, not so good.
But unlike the melting temperature of iron ore, the reliability of a proven piece of code, or the certainty that the debits will balance out the credits, people are unpredictable.
They have lives—inside and outside of their workday.
They have years of unique experiences that have shaped who they are and how they respond to different stimuli.
They have wide variability in their physical and chemical compositions.
They have different—and often unfathomable or surprising—priorities in their lives.
And you think your going to “manage” that hot mess of humanity with any success or predictability?
It is no wonder that many people who are called managers are jerks and that even more of them are ineffective at actually managing people.
Here’s the truth: you can’t effectively manage people.
None of us can.
People are too messy to be managed.
So why do we call people who are charged with leading other people toward a common goal “managers?”
As soon as we give someone the title “Manager,” we’re setting them—and those they are to manage—up for failure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a giant believer in the ability of good leaders to bring people together to create value for shareholders, customers, and the community.
I value accountability and swear by meaningful scorecards.
But good leaders aren’t managers of people.
They are coaches.
They build teams of individuals who are intrinsically motivated to achieve a common goal.
They incentivize those teams to succeed with neither carrot nor stick but with work that has purpose and meaning.
They set high expectations and then help their people achieve them.
They empathize when people stumble.
They celebrate the small victories.
They recognize and grow their team members’ potential, giving them room to try, fail, and try again.
They understand that employees don’t put their life on hold when they come to work.
And they treat each person a little differently because, well, each person is a little different.
The successful leaders I’ve worked with over my career weren’t people managers—they were people enablers. They gave people (or helped them find) what they needed to be successful in their roles and in their lives.
It is time to retire the manager mindset when it comes to people.
Our leaders and our people deserve better.