For some reason, managers like to run away from the word “manager.” Maybe they think it makes them sound too authoritarian, which is why they gravitate toward more positive-sounding words like “leader.”
But there’s nothing inherently negative about managing, and any business leader has to embrace the fact that – on one level or another – you are managing people. That seems so fundamental, it shouldn’t even need to be said.
Yet maybe the reason people shy away from the role of manager is that it’s the one area where your mistakes are most difficult to shake. When you make a budgetary mistake, you just re-run the numbers and it’s fixed. When you make a product design mistake, you go back and redesign it, and the product works.
But when you make a mistake dealing with people, the objects of your mistake remember. Your mistake could affect their lives. They can tell others about it. It can affect your reputation.
A bad product design or a flawed budget can’t look at you like you’re an idiot. A person can. So we’re a little more sensitive about the mistakes we make managing people, and maybe we’re a little less willing to openly talk about them.
But we need to. Nothing teaches us more than our mistakes, and we all make them. The longer you remain in business, you should be able to gain wisdom from these mistakes and learn to do better. But that’s not going to happen if you pretend nothing you did while managing people was ever a mistake.
So I’ll start. Earlier in my career, there were two very problematic areas that led me to trouble managing people.
The first was gossip. I know this is awful – not just as a management practice, but as general human behavior – but it’s long been a weakness for me. I love gossip. I love jawboning about what’s going on and who’s into what. For me, it could be anything from people’s clothing to who said what, to who was seen with whom.
I’m not proud of this, but I need to cop to it. And I paid a serious price for it as a manager.
Initially, I saw this as a healthy distraction from the non-stop seriousness of the business. There is always something going on, things to be dealt with, decisions to be made . . . it seemed like it could be healthy to allow myself and my team mental breaks to talk about trivial nonsense.
But I soon realized a couple of things. First, I was alienating people, because no one likes to be the subject of gossip. It bothered them, understandably, that the boss was getting down in the dirt and talking about them like I was. I saw it as harmless and innocent, but they didn’t. Second, I was causing people not to trust me. If I was the type of manager who would repeat things he’d heard to others in a careless fashion, why would anyone trust me with any information at all?
There was another problem that arose from my participation in gossip: I was creating a subculture of how to influence Wade. Sure, you could do it the normal way – by working hard and accomplishing your goals. But the people in the gossip group started figuring out that they could gain my favor by letting me in on the latest juicy tidbits. It was unfair to everyone else, and needless to say, it was completely contrary to how a good manager should interact with employees.
I’m ashamed of it, but I also recognize that you can be a very mature manager and still fall into some sort of loop like this that’s based on a quirk in your personality. What might that be for you? Maybe it’s not gossip, but maybe you have a weakness for yelling at people. Or maybe worse things.
You should take very seriously how your indulgence in such behaviors can compromise your effectiveness as a manager. I am not suggesting there’s no room for your true personality in your professional role, but you need to think very carefully about how things you actually do can come back to harm you and others.
My second big mistake category was promises. I was way too willing to make them – often without giving much thought to what I was promising – and not willing enough to admit before it was too late that a promise was unwise.
Here’s a perfect example: I had a person working for us as a consultant, and he was doing very well in that role. But he wanted to be a sales engineer, and was pretty assertive about asking for that opportunity. I wanted to say something encouraging to him, so I told him that if he worked hard for six months in the consulting role, I would promote him to sales engineer.
Well. Six months came and went. I was actually on vacation with my family – stopping at a highway rest stop, if you must know – when I got a call from him. It was the six-month point, he reminded me, and I’d made him a promise.
Indeed I had. It had not been a smart promise. He really wasn’t right for the sales role, and nothing he’d done in those six months had changed that. But I didn’t want to break a promise (and I was trying to get out of that rest stop), so I gave the OK for the promotion.
This was a disaster. He performed poorly in the role. I kept trying to nudge him back into consulting, but he wasn’t interested in that. And the rest of the company recognized my poor business decision, which I couldn’t defend with anything substantive. The fact of the matter was that I had spoken carelessly and didn’t know how to back away from my words.
The move hurt the company by putting the wrong person in the wrong role, and also hurt the company by undermining confidence in the CEO. Eventually the person left, and not on very good terms, while those who stayed continued to remember my mistake.
The fact is the word promise shouldn’t even be in a businessperson’s vocabulary. If you want to sign contracts, that’s fine, but that’s not the same thing because a contract spells out what’s expected of both parties in an agreement that’s ready to be executed. A promise is something you’re committing to no matter what, and in business there’s no such thing as no matter what.
Sometimes I think we make promises because we want our people to believe rewards are coming, and we want them to stay hopeful and motivated. We want them to believe we’re willing to take care of them. But we pay a price for that when the time comes to fulfill the promise and it doesn’t make sense to do it.
We’re better off laying out the circumstances in which a scenario could happen, and letting the employee know what his or her responsibility would be in making those circumstances reality.
But making promises is a fool’s exercise. It’s every bit as foolish as gossip.
So now you can all go off and gossip about my mistakes, but before you do that, why don’t you tell me something: What are some of yours? And what did you learn from them?