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How Being a Bad Manager Made Me a Better HR Person

This week I read that about 70% of US managers are afraid to talk to their employees. This produced a series of conflicting thoughts:

  1. I sort of sympathize. I want to avoid talking to anyone about 70% of the time, so #twinsies, you know?
  2. It also deserves a big eye roll because REALLY? WHAT DID THEY THINK BEING A MANAGER WAS ABOUT??
  3. But really, so what? They’ll mostly be replaced by AI soon anyway.
  4. Also, I’m not really surprised since like most HR people, I’ve had an otherwise capable person physically deposit a crying employee in my office as though they were a mogwai that got fed after midnight (Google it, Millennials!)

I’m joking (sort of). Being a manager is hard. Really hard. I know that because I was a bad manager. Like so many others, I thought managing meant the opportunity to have a bigger impact on the company, to accomplish more than I could on my own by having others implement my ideas. I didn’t understand that being a people manager wasn’t really about getting more of my stuff done, it was about supporting and guiding others to deliver and increase their capacity, which is really, really different.

Had I understood this, I wouldn’t have presumed to manage others the way I preferred to be managed, or assumed that what motivated me (an unhealthy desire to overachieve) and the way I addressed my own mistakes (harshly) would help my direct reports succeed (it didn’t).

These days I’m less of a nightmare manager than I was, but I recognize the value that these early mistakes have offered me since.

While I often write about big ideas on this blog, a lot of my work in HR has come down to just trying to help people not be bad managers (yes, there were good managers too, but sadly there is always less cause to spend time with them). This often consists of telling managers that they have to do things they would prefer not to do, like talk to employees. In fact, probably 75% of the discussions I’ve had with managers as an HR person could be boiled down to “Say the hard thing to the employee. Be kind, but say it. Yes, you have to.” So, maybe I’ll be the one replaced by AI soon…

Easier Said Than Done

Of course, as an HR person it’s far too easy to dole out advice like this without fully appreciating the challenge that following it can present. Managers rarely receive the kind of training such an important role should entail, they’re busy and, (like most of us) prone to defaulting to the most urgent or familiar tasks rather than navigate ambiguous situations involving conflict.

Yet without good advice, managers are likely to underestimate the costs of not saying the hard things they should to employees (costs to their own credibility, to team morale, to trust).  As a bad manager I learned that delaying those difficult conversations led to a much higher bill later on, for everyone involved.

This is certainly not to say that managers always appreciate or follow my advice, but I have come to believe that it’s better they hear it from me than from someone who doesn’t know their struggles with the intimacy I do.

If you’ve ever been taught or coached to do something by a person who has a natural talent for that thing, you’ll know what I mean. You ask them “How do you do X?” only to have them stare back at you with a soft, puzzled face. “Well you just do it”. Gee, thanks Cheryl, that’s freaking brilliant; let me write that down…

Management Merit Badges

I’m still occasionally surprised by colleagues that assume I must be a master manager to give advice about managing others. I still occasionally feel like a fraud when I work with managers who are naturally gifted at leading and developing people. But then I remember the words of one of my manager role models, Michael Lopp (formerly of Pinterest, now Slack, and the brilliant blog Rands in Repose). Lopp once described gaining leadership skills as a process of earning “merit badges” for learning from both challenging and great managerial experiences. Experiences like:

  • Hiring a human
  • Firing a human
  • Putting a human on a performance plan
  • Delivering horrifically bad news
  • Failing spectacularly
  • Sitting there calmly while a human loses their mind

Although I didn’t set out to do so, I’ve earned a lot of merit badges by making mistakes and getting through some difficult shit. I’ve learned that management feels a lot less like a scene from Dead Poet’s Society and lot more like putting your ego in a choke hold while trying to juggle. It frequently sucks and it’s not for everyone.

But having survived (and learned from) experiences like these, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do everything I can to help others avoid the same potholes in the road, even (or maybe especially) if they’re afraid to talk to their employees.

Read This Week:

Best Career Advice for 2018 – Laurie Ruettimann

Laurie nails it. One of the truest paragraphs I’ve ever read.

“Don’t take career advice. Let’s end that sentence there. Advice is a form of nostalgia that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the speaker. If you need clarity in your life, seek guidance or coaching from someone who isn’t building a personal brand.”

Making Things Better for People. Simply.  – David D’Souza

Already an early contender for 2018 Person Whose Brain I’d Most Like to Borrow (can I use neural laces for that?), David shares some notes from his upcoming CIPD Engagement Conference keynote.

“All too often the engagement strategy is survey -> talk about survey -> commit to some actions -> wait for the next survey. Organisations normally set the focus of the survey and that means they get answers on a narrow spectrum. Or let me put this in a more overt way – we know that sexual harassment and gender (and equal) pay issues are rife. You would be an exceptional organisation not to have these issues. It’s unlikely you ask about them in your survey. You are attempting to capture a measure of culture without dealing with some of the most pressing issues.

Yet if you were trying to really, really, really shift the dial on culture what would you address? The bad leaders that you probably know about and don’t act on. The bad behaviour that you probably know about and don’t act on. Harder – but more important.

The key is to try and create an organisation that doesn’t have a problem, rather than focusing on HR being the solution.”

Why People Really Quit Their JobsLori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant, Harvard Business Review

Speaking of good managers…this was a great read.

“The decision to exit was because of the work. They left when their job wasn’t enjoyable, their strengths weren’t being used, and they weren’t growing in their careers.”

“Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they’re open to creating jobs around them.”

“This highlights three key ways that managers can customize experiences for their people: enable them to do work they enjoy, help them play to their strengths, and carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities.”

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Miriam #

    LOVED it!!!

    January 15, 2018

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