“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself” said Eleanor Roosevelt and one of the most important lessons in management. It is frequently written and talked about, yet so often misunderstood.
The common meaning for this and what most write about is that managers should not ask people on the team to do yucky work that the manager doesn’t want to do. Or said another way, if there’s something yucky to be done then managers should join in. That’s all well and good, but is also just basic civility I think.
Management is not about asking people to do stuff.
The real lesson gets to a much deeper point. Management just isn’t about asking people to do stuff. If you think it is, then that’s the problem. Good times or bad, smart people doing creative work rarely respond to being told to do anything, let alone yucky work.
Good times or bad, smart people doing creative work rarely respond to being told to do anything, let alone yucky work.
This challenge is rooted in how people transition to management. If you’re on that path then one day you come to work and you are a manager, and for better or worse everything is different from that day forward. I know that sounds dramatic, but it really is true. One day all you worry about is getting your work done. Then all of a sudden you “have people” and you worry about whether they are getting their work done, how good is it, are they happy, did you hire the right people or fire the wrong ones, are you measuring performance well, or even is the right work getting done.
That’s kind of a big deal.
It is an equally big deal for the people that now work for you. They ask things like what will change, will my new manager appreciate my work the same, how will I know if I’m doing a good job, will I get promoted, and so on.
This is all normal. People learn, grow, develop and adjust. But the real challenge comes when a manager starts thinking “my team”, “my people”, “my project” — the use of first person is almost always the first warning sign. Linguistically that separation — there’s me and then some people — is risky at best.
This manifests itself in many ways that can bug the team and harm the culture, such as when managers talk about the work of the team in the first person — ”What I am trying to get done is…” or “I am working to improve…”. These are “we” and “team”.
The much bigger challenge that almost always follows this is when a manager starts to believe that “my people” are there to support the manager and to make the work of the manager easier. The result of this type of thinking is that a manager starts asking people to do work that benefits the manager, not the people or the work. That is asking people to do things they would not do just because they think the people are there to do them for the manager.
This is a rather insidious problem. One day the manager is concerned about something, say rate of commits or conversion of customers from trial or something. Maybe this is from a report in the press or some recent data from finance or a note from sales. The natural thing for the worried manager to do is to figure out why. To do this managers start asking for data, reports, and information. All of a sudden people are doing things for management.
Behind the scenes, people on the team are now doing queries, making charts, and trying to understand what is causing all these questions and the back-and-forth — more pivots, more views, different data slices.
At the same time, the manager thinks “this is exactly what I need to do and I need to get to the bottom of this”. In particular, managers often think they have some insight or observation that comes from their unique vantage point looking across the team (or multiple managers) or some experience they have that others don’t (“just got back from talking to customers” is a super common one).
From this moment on the manager is creating a culture that treats the team like a staff function there to support the manager. Prior to kicking off this cycle everyone was doing some work. Now they are figuring out what the manager wants and doing a whole new type of work.
I just described a crisis or a some new data resulting in this dynamic. That isn’t required. This can also get kicked off because a manager, especially a new one, has ideas how to improve the team’s work, efficiency, quality, etc. based on their own experience doing that same job. This is frequently where new processes come from, especially new weekly summaries or reports. The manager is simply working to stay on top of the work of the team which they generally believe is what managers need to be doing.
The problem with this dynamic is the disconnect between the manager’s definition of managing and the team’s definition. Manager’s tend to think the team needs leadership, control, and accountability. The team thinks managers are there to provide support, resources, and air cover to increase focus/reduce distractions. No one has the wrong intentions but ultimately managers are asking people to do things they would not otherwise do.
This problem is only made “exponentially” worse with added layers of management. Each layer is doing this to each other layer. All along each manager just thinks “this is only one lightweight ask” or “just a small change to the regular process” and so no big deal.
Here are a few tips for how to think about whether the team’s management culture is heading in the right direction, written from the perspective of the manager:
Is this a problem? The first question a manager should ask is if there is a problem. Never presume there is a problem even if it was observed firsthand. Anecdata is just as dangerous in the hands of managers. There’s always a chance this is a new data point, but starting from a question means together there will be learning and discovery.
Can I answer this myself? Managers, as busy as they are, should always work to find the answers themselves first and foremost. Learn to use the tools and use them. Even then, be prepared to ask the expert if this data analysis is correct and why not. Again, focusing on learning and discovery together.
Will this help people do their work? Never assume as a manager that something you think will be helpful to getting work done will actually be helpful. No matter how in touch with work you are, chances are smart creative people will have their own ideas of what will be helpful and those ideas might be different than the one you have. Before suggesting one specific thing, managers should consider what changes, analysis, reports, information or whatever would the team be considering at any given moment and are not doing.
Am I sharing what I think I know uniquely? If as a manager you believe you have some unique perspective or information source, ask yourself how you can be getting the raw data/observations to the team. Sure as a manager you might go to some big important staff meeting or get to travel or see customers — with all of those ask yourself what are you doing to share the learning and context, not just the action items or follow ups. People are very good at filtering uninteresting or boring information. People are also very good at fabricating the craziest reasons behind a crazy ask. Better to improve filtering skills.
Did you frame the problem and define success? The more frequently a manager believes they are correcting, tweaking, or optimizing the work of the team the more likely the problem is that the manager has not been doing the work to frame the problem and what success looks like. Leadership is not about the “how” but about the “what” and the “why”. The thing to do is to ask if people understand what and why, not to tell the team how.
The best question to ask is “how can I help?”.
This most important lesson in management is not roll up your sleeves and be willing to join in the work. Rather it is to know if what you are asking people to do is really about the work they are doing or is it about how as a manager you define your own work. To do that managers need to ask questions, not ask for work. The best question to ask is “how can I help?”.
While everyone would like people to be doing things to help them get their job done, that is specifically not what managing people is about.
Author: Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)