Prior to managing people, I had strong opinions about how I would handle situations differently (so much better, of course) and what I was owed. After four years of managing teams that have ranged in size from 2 people to 100 people, my perspective has changed. In some cases, I would have cut my manager more slack. In other cases, I would have demanded more. I tried to summarize my reflection into 3 things I would tell my non-manager self.
1. Managers have bad days too.
I used to overanalyze my manager’s behavior. ‘What did I do? Am I getting fired? Should I stop checking my Hotmail at work?’ It had to be about me, right? Wrong. We all have bad days and get snippy. Managers are no different. (it should be rare, but it still happens)
Some days, the political jockeying or finger-pointing is too much. When this happens, we’re not short with you because we’ve decided you’re a bad employee; we just want to hide in our office with a bag of Cheetos and hammer through that power point that is one week overdue. Maybe someone just yelled at us, or maybe we lost our temper and yelled at someone else. Or, maybe we’re just in a funk. Today, I was emotionally tapped out by noon. My biggest victory was that I didn’t go for the Cheetos until 5:00pm. Days like this are rare and I try to compartmentalize so I don’t take it out on my employees; but sometimes it’s tough to fake enthusiasm.
My caveat to this is that attitude is one of the most important factors of success. Your manager shouldn’t be having a bad day every day. This pertains to employees too. You don’t need to be Susie Sunshine, but you do need to have an open mind. If you’re frustrated by a process, think about what is needed to improve the process rather than just complain about it. If you feel like other groups aren’t good at sharing information, be the first to reach out to discuss how you can work better together. Or, if you think other groups are just plain terrible at their jobs (and maybe life in general), try to understand if it is really them or if there is something else going on. Chances are, they are dealing with bad process, unclear roles and responsibilities, or poor morale. Dig in and figure out how you can be part of the solution.
2. Good managers will be invested in your performance and job satisfaction, regardless of your career aspirations.
There are three kinds of employees: promotable, valued contributor, and needs development. I’m sure I’ve been in each category at one point, but I’ve only had a few managers make it a priority to have the discussion with me regularly. As a result, other managers were very surprised when I turned in my notice because, apparently, I was highly valued. How was I supposed to know that if I wasn’t being told?
You and your manager should be discussing where you fit at least 1-2 times a year, including what you want to get out of your current role. Do you want a promotion? Are you happy in your role, but you want to take on more responsibility? Do you want better work/life balance? This is a two-way street, so if your manager hasn’t initiated the discussion you should set up the first meeting. Your manager should be prepared with feedback. If this doesn’t happen, press for it. You deserve it.
On the flip side, your manager should be very honest if you aren’t doing well. You should know specifics about what isn’t meeting standards, actions you need to take to fix it, and the timeline. You deserve the chance to improve and your peers deserve to have a team full of equally contributing people. I strongly believe addressing performance issues isn’t just for the benefit of the employee having the issues, it’s for the benefit of the entire team. We’ve all had coworkers we think aren’t pulling their weight, and our second thought has probably been, “Why isn’t my boss doing anything about it?”.
3. We know more than you might think, and (sometimes) our decisions are based in logic that isn’t easy to see.
This applies to a lot of areas: poor performers, what our employees do on a daily basis, big changes that might be coming, etc. I had a boss I was certain kept piling work on me because he was ‘buddies’ with my coworker. It made me so mad that I actually took a different job within the company. In retrospect, he was trying to stretch me to take on more responsibility because he had confidence in my abilities. Even if his intention really was to help out his buddy, I’m the one who ultimately benefitted from being stretched.
Managers won’t know everything their employees do on a day-to-day basis. If they do, they’re micromanaging or not focusing on the best things for their team. However, what they should know is their empoloyee’s skills and how those might be causing frustrations in their job or how those skills can be used to benefit the team. If someone doesn’t have a high attention to detail but they have a highly analytical job, it is the manager’s job to recognize that and help their employee work through it. Chances are, the employee also has skills that make them successful in other aspects of their role. They might not be great with details, but they’re good at building relationships or they bring good ideas out about how a process could be improved.
Employee issues are an area it is (or should be) easy for a manager to figure out what is really happening. Since the team’s work is a reflection of the manager, it’s rare that a manager doesn’t see a performance issue. Your lazy coworker? He could be on a performance improvement plan, but that isn’t exactly something we can share for ethical reasons. My caveat to point #2 is your manager should address performance issues, but you won’t know they are addressing it (if it isn’t you). Try to be patient.
My non-manager self would probably have advice for me too. I’m sure it would relate to fairness and spending time understanding my employee’s daily responsibilities. Or maybe it would mostly be about giving big raises.