Don’t Manage as if You are Managing Yourself

by Krishna on October 8, 2007

A common mistake of managers is to assume that their employees are like themselves and manage them accordingly. This causes frustration among both the managed employees and the manager. Here are some examples:

  • I could have finished that work in 30 minutes. Tom has taken much longer and he has done it the wrong way.”
  • Harry, why did you work on this task now? That critical bug was more important. Learn to prioritize.”
  • James, you need to think 2 years down the road when we have to maintain this code. Don’t just take the easy route.”
  • Why is the office so empty this early? I know it is a long weekend, but people, we have promises to keep.”

The manager is puzzled by the behavior and output of his employees. He believes that he could do a much better job than they, and is not afraid to educate anyone about the fact. The employees cannot understand how their best efforts are never acknowledged. Instead, nothing they do seems to be good enough. Why does this happen?

The problems stem from the mismatch between the capabilities of managers and employees:

  1. Management: Managers are familiar with understanding customer needs, work prioritization, scheduling, etc. In contrast, most employees are technically-oriented and cannot see the big picture. They need external input to change their way of working.
  2. Commitment: Managers are generally more committed than employees to the business goals of the organization. Contributing factors include compensation model, customer/market proximity, better understanding of company’s financial information, etc.
  3. Behavior: Managers are more likely to be extroverts and go-getters than regular employees. They exhibit analytical thinking, know how to communicate with people and understand how to balance short-term needs with the long-term vision.

There are a few employees who do exhibit some of these skills, but they, sooner or later, get promoted to managers. So, the net result is that most employees lack many of the skills that managers possess. In theory, it is possible for employees to improve themselves by training or self-learning. But in practice, only a few people actually want to or try to learn such skills by themselves.

Managers are managers precisely because they have certain abilities that other employees lack. They have a better understanding of what the company requires and are willing to go the extra mile towards that. Managers can be workaholics, putting effort disproportionately more than what they are compensated for. Many are very interested in the technical aspects of their work, which occupies their brains even when they are outside their office building or their working hours.

Regular employees are a little less crazy. Most of them love their work, but their personal life (family, friends, hobbies, etc.) is more important to them. Their work has little meaning outside the workplace. They have more immediate problems that occupy their minds, like how to raise their children, how to pay their bills, what game is on TV, what time the grocery store closes tonight, and so on.

When a manager talks about “quality”, “long-term thinking” or “customer satisfaction”, it does not feel as meaningful or urgent to a regular employee. A manager takes pride in the internal and external quality of a product, regardless of any change it makes to his personal life. Not so for an employee. In short, managers and employees do not share the same benefits and same fears. Hence, any action they take is based on different logical premises.

As a manager, what can you do? For practical reasons, it is not possible for you to fix the root issues. You have to manage around it. Here are some tips:

  1. Never delegate prioritization to your employees. Always explain what tasks are more important to you. Ask people to discuss with you before they want to change the prioritization. Always have fall-back tasks so that people can do them if they are held up with some difficulty in their primary tasks.
  2. Make it clear how to make trade-offs. If a task takes more time, can people take short-cuts with quality in getting it done? Or should they delay delivery until they get it perfect? If you don’t do this, people will inevitably make a choice that you will regret later.
  3. Establish training mechanisms for your employees to develop managerial skills. Start by giving greater flexibility in non-critical tasks where people can make mistakes and learn from them. Slowly build up their strengths. Encourage people to go for formal management courses.
  4. Give people rope for mistakes, but discuss those mistakes in non-confrontational settings so that employees can improve. Give opportunities for employees to come up with their suggestions for improvement, instead of you telling them what to do.
  5. Explain concepts to employees in their terms. For example, when you talk about quality, talk about how much additional work and aggravation it creates for them, instead of some silly talk of “craftsmanship”. Make it real.
  6. Finally, minimize work binges. Many people can accommodate brief periods of high commitment, but when it turns out be a regular work practice, it is the ideal setting for employee disengagement, anger and attrition. Learn to estimate using the average employee, not you, as the standard human resource.

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