What Is A "Good People Manager"?
1+1 = 2 100% of the time. But with people it could be 1.5 it could be 20 and the answer will change everyday. Humans are complex, we evolve, we have emotions, we change and grow, we have lives and concerns outside of our jobs. We are so used to logical, complete, verifiable systems with coding but there’s no such thing when it comes to how humans work together. This is really where the magic of teams comes together, can you assemble a collection of people and do something greater than the sum of its parts?
01 People act the way you treat them
Any parents are intimately familiar with this concept. Treat people like children, they’ll act like children, treat them like adults, they’ll begin to act more like adults. This is applicable to team management but it’s worth remembering the situation is more extreme. Your reward and punishment mechanisms aren’t just kind words or scolding, they’re cash and job security. Potential rewards and potential punishments are much weightier, psychological safety is more acute, so there’s a big responsibility attached.
Consider trust. The antithesis of trust from a leader is micromanagement, which is basically saying you don’t trust people to make good decisions (or fast ones, or both) so you’re going to make them. Micromanaging can be useful for maximizing speed - and yes we are saying you can micromanage sometimes - but it’s a short term fix only. If you want to see what a team looks like that can’t operate independently, won’t make decisions, won’t take action unless told exactly what to do, then look at your favorite micromanager’s team (or just read a few Dilbert strips). The ideal state is trust and verify - give your team the room to do what they need to do their way, and find your own mechanisms to ensure it happens correctly.
02 The importance of being earnest
Being direct and sincere is possibly the most effective tool you have for managing individuals, and 1-1s are the time to use it.
It’s really easy to prevaricate when it comes to talking to people, to wrap every statement in “perhaps” and “maybe” and “it would be good in these types of circumstances if you’d consider doing this”. In many parts of the world speaking in a very direct fashion almost requires a level of cultural reprogramming.
Having the ability to talk directly requires a base level of trust between manager and employee - it can come across as aggressive, especially in comparison to other workspeak which is swaddled in indirect, all-in-it-together language. All of those things said, you want to get to that place where you can be direct, and they can be direct with you. Trust and psychological safety are key.
But when you get there it makes 1-1s far more valuable: you learn more about them and about yourself; your coaching lands better; you can create champions and delegate more.
On criticism and constructive feedback: when speaking directly it’s absolutely vital to use real examples. There is no faster way to annoy people than by critiquing performance without a very specific case in point. It also requires you to be open to being wrong - there may well be context you don’t know about, so listen as carefully as you speak.
There is power in speed - don’t wait a day or a week or until your next 1-1; if you can course correct, do it quickly. The best lessons are learned when things are still fresh in the mind. The only exception is if the situation is particularly emotional - in that case it’s fine to let people cool down a little first. But don’t wait longer than you need to.
03 Avoid compliment sandwiches
Be honest. “You’re so smart that what seems like easy to understand code is actually pretty hard for others. Keep up the good work just remember no one else is as smart as you.” Think that message really got across? Maybe for a week at best but it didn’t strike at the heart of any meaningful issue to affect change. What is the engineer supposed to do, try to be less smart?
Say what you mean, and no more. It’s uncomfortable to start with, but once you see it actually work a few times it becomes way less awkward. People are actually way more open to discussing real issues head on than you’d expect. Present it clearly, and with an example or two, find the right tone that works for the human you’re talking to (but keep the message honest), and focus on actionable takeaways.
Everyone wants to improve - or at least, everyone should want to improve. People definitely exist who are happy to phone it in, but ideally you didn’t employ them in the first place. If you did refer to the section on managing those people.
04 Get comfortable in the awkwardness
Most people avoid awkward situations, and when they find themselves in one try to get out of it ASAP. Pick your favorite sitcom, many examples there. When it comes to managing, awkward silences are going to happen, almost weekly in fact so expect them. Embrace them. Get comfortable in them. Learn how to use them as a tool, responsibly.
We say responsibly because there’s a terrible mind-trick in here. If I ask you a question and you respond, and I stare at you unflinchingly and say nothing, what are you likely to do? If I’m a stranger you’ll probably think I’m a weirdo and leave.
But if we are familiar with each other and interact often you’ll quickly start to feel awkward and look for ways to get rid of that by talking more. Now your mental focus has been diverted, and information just starts coming out. Jumbled yes, but also unfiltered. That was the point. If you think about it I’m sure your own boss has done this to you at some point to get to what you’re really thinking. So learn to get comfortable here so you realize when it’s happening and when to use it, but use it responsibly.
People act the way you treat them
The importance of being earnest
Avoid compliment sandwiches
Get comfortable in the awkwardness