by Matthew Richter
One of the biggest challenges managers face is their own attitude toward their employees. Managers get irritated at a lack of urgency. They get annoyed at cranky moods. They want to strangle employees at the sight of cocky behavior. And, of course failure… failure, especially if connected to one of their own high-profile projects, brings out murderous aspirations.
On smaller, more realistic levels, managers get bothered by facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, or other hot buttons tied to their own neurotic tendencies.
The problem is we don’t always know where the line is between personal grievances that don’t affect performance outcomes and real gaps that lead to goal failure.
As a manager, it is our job to focus on getting things done—on time, with acceptable quality, and under budget. At the same time, we are supposed to be developing team members to great levels of skill. It isn’t surprising that human idiosyncrasies bother us.
So what is a manager to do? One mantra has been quite useful to me over the years. I stole it from my friend Chris Holmberg. (I have no idea who he stole it from.) It is: Your job as a manager is to enable your team to succeed.
At first glance, you might say, “No kidding.” But deeper thought given to this simple idea can lead you to question some of your choices when engaging team members.
In our work, we often use scenarios to uncover and explore dilemmas managers face. One of the characters in these scenarios is Bob. Imagine Bob is a young team member. He tries hard, but is a bit full of himself. He takes initiative that often derails him or the team from its objectives. He tends to be oblivious to subtle feedback. He is ambitious. And, at the same time, he is a sweet guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly. That people might be annoyed or angry at him would hurt his feelings. When he is focused, his performance is acceptable—not great, but acceptable. When unfocused, he misses deliverables and his quality is spotty. Perhaps you know someone like Bob.
When talking about Bob, several folks indicate a desire to fire him, or at least put him in his place. Others focus their feedback on showing Bob how he has been wrong and deficient. But will these impulses get you to your goal? Several managers have indicated that getting Bob to understand he is wrong and getting him to fix his cocky attitude are both important. While his attitude may affect his other teammates, I would argue that if Bob were to start performing more effectively, many of his attitude problems would go away. His teammates would be more likely to discuss their issues with him directly. You would have an opportunity to coach Bob toward different types of interactions without telling him he has an attitude problem.
By focusing Bob on what you want him to do rather than what he did wrong, you provide him with direction he can follow. By setting clear expectations with overt deliverables and metrics that are both time-bound and quality-specific, you give him the parameters to succeed. By smiling and calmly supporting his demeanor, while at the same time keeping the conversation focused on what you want, you avoid implying or expressing judgment. In other words, you find a way to enable him to succeed.
The key to this approach to Bob is a second important management mantra: It is more important to be effective than to be right.
As a tremendously competitive person during most of my life I have found different paths to victory when interacting with my fellow humans. To me, victory is proving I am right and the other person is wrong. Or proving I am the smartest person in the room. Or that I know more than the other person. Or that I am more powerful, or have higher status, or … well, you get the picture.
Now I ask myself what is truly a victory. Not just for my own personal satisfaction, but for the project, for the team, for the collective. I remind myself of the stated goal. Will showing Bob how immature he is get him to follow the team's consensus? Will offending Bob and putting him in his place create an intrinsically motivating and supportive environment for him to perform and manage his priorities effectively? Will reminding Bob that he doesn’t listen get us an employee who does listen?
When I ask managers whether they have actually set clear priorities with goals and defined metrics of success for troubled employees, they often blanch and say, “No.” Enabling your team member to succeed means confirming expectations, goals, and metrics. Being effective means that Bob knows what to do, when to do it, and what success looks like. Being right, rather than effective, means putting Bob in his place instead of opening the door for him to step toward success.
I liken “I’d rather be effective than right,” to that ancient saying, “to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.” I’ll indulge in a historical detour here, because it’s cool.
“Cutting off the nose to spite the face” most likely originated in or just before the 12th century and seems to most famously represent the story of Aebbe the Younger, the Mother Superior of the monastery of Coldingham in Scotland. In 867 AD, Vikings from Zealand and Uppsala landed with bad intentions. When the news of the landing reached Saint Ebba, she gathered her nuns together and urged them to disfigure themselves so that the Vikings would view them as unappealing. (The goal was to maintain their chastity, but I would also think they had hopes of survival.) She demonstrated by cutting off her nose and upper lip, and the other nuns did the same. The Vikings were so disgusted they burned the building to the ground. As time passed, in the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for someone to cut off a person’s nose as punishment or revenge. Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker notes that the phrase may have originated from this practice as a form of prototypical spite.
The expression has become a common phrase for unwise, self-destructive actions motivated purely by anger or desire for revenge. For example, if her husband angered a woman, she might burn down the house to punish him, even though in doing so she would burn her own home and personal possessions. Yelling at or firing Bob might feel good in the moment, but may cause all sorts of problems later when you cannot replace him. Or, more likely, Bob will just shut down and become even less productive.
I urge managers to think through their actions. Don’t react. Don’t emote. Think. What are the short and long-term consequences of your engagements with your employees? Are you supporting them? Are you enabling them to most efficiently succeed? Are you choosing an effective pathway toward your goals, or are you choosing to win the battle and put them in their place?
You win if you can get Bob lined up with your priorities. You win if you can get Bob to align with the team’s approach. You win if you get Bob to be more sensitive when interacting with colleagues.
Focus on the most direct path toward true victory. Find a way where Bob doesn’t feel like he took a beating. Let Bob win the engagement as long as you achieve the outcomes you need.