Management

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Everything I know about management can be summed up in this one article. OK, maybe not. I've managed many teams of people over the years, and read quite a bit on the subject before getting my MBA. There are many views on the subject, and many that I disagree with; but rather than heckling others, I'll just spew forth some of my own. None of them are horribly original, but sometimes there's value in sorting the wheat from the chaff.


There are many kinds of managers; technical, personnel, administrative. Each is a special discipline, with different foci. In this article, I'm discussing the high level, and mostly on the personnel level. Why? Because this is probably the most important area of management; and sometimes the most ignored. Technical and administrative disciplines are hard, but they are both easier to find and easier to replace than a person that can really motivate and work with many different kinds of people.

To manage people effectively, you need to motivate people effectively. To do that, you need to know what motivates people. That varies by individual, but there are some commonalities that apply across the board.

Appreciation

People want to feel valued and appreciated. That's a pretty easy one. Everyone likes the pat on the back, and have someone say "good job". Thus, to be a good manager, you need to do that. Guys especially have a tendency to be restrained with praise but to be a good manager, you need to get over that. "Atta-boys" can go a long way to making others feel good about themselves; and the better they feel, the more motivated they are - thus the harder they work, and more they contribute. So it is just good business to be good with people.

The opposite is also true. If you want to suck the motivation out of someone, just walk up and berate them for something they did or belittle their effort or accomplishment, especially if it is in front of someone else. That person will be hurt, angry, or lots of things that are not good emotions and the opposite of motivated and thus less likely to produce results. They are likely to fume, bitch to others, work on their resumes, or do all sorts of things that don't contribute to the bottom line (theirs, yours, or the companies). It doesn't matter if what they did sucks or not; what matters is what their reactions will be and how to motivate them.

So the end result is that you need to be restrained with criticism and free with praise. Or in other words, the carrot is more motivating than the stick. That doesn't mean that you can't criticize, or shouldn't. It just means that you should do it discretely and rarely, and give "opportunities" to improve and grow; explain it in terms they value. The more they produce, the more they should get things they like/want, and all people want to be appreciated. The less, well then the less they get what they want, or get some things they don't want. But you can't tax an economy into prosperity, and you can't beat people into being motivated.

Pull rather than push

Some people believe you need to "push" people. You need to drive them like a car or ride them like a horse. That if you give them the opportunity, they will slack off and do the minimum. There are certainly some like that; especially in non-motivated industries, and the lower end of the employment spectrums. But I deal more in the professionals. If you can't trust them, then fire them and hire people you can trust; then you need to let them do their jobs. You can't push people into work, and it is a waste of everyone's time. If they aren't happy, and you can't change it, then both of you need a change.

If your entire company is full of people like that (unmotivated and have to be pushed), then it shows that you (or the organization) is not good at finding and keeping good people. You need to fix the culture, and that starts at the top. Take some management classes to learn how to motivate others and how to hire them that way in the first place. Stop pushing and start pulling.

Pushing can't work because humans are smart and wily. If you attack them, they will seek revenge. It may be in back-channel sniping or carping. It may be political, by building allies to work against you. It may be just biding time for an opportunity to screw you over, or reflect poorly on you. It may be by passive aggressive "protest work", where they do the minimum required and misinterpret what you say to work against you. They know your interests, and they know what you want. If you piss them off enough (by being a dictatorial authority), they know how to work the system in their favor, or at least against yours. If you have to push them to do their jobs, then they will push back in many other ways. There is one manager for many employees; you can't push against their collective will. So you either figure out how to get them to want to do their jobs well, or you find others that do. And if you have to keep replacing people, that reflects more on you and your company than on them.

Just because you can't push people, doesn't mean that you can't pull them. Take a jackass or horse; get behind it and shove. It will probably resist and laugh at the futility of your actions. On the other hand, get out in front of it, and start leading, and they will often follow. So the trick to management is being the leader. Set the example, give them something that they want, give them a vision of where they want to go and how they can get there. Most will follow, those that don't, get left behind.

Control

People need to feel in control of their lives. You want to motivate them, give them that control. There are many clich├ęs here; you can't give responsibility you can only give authority, give credit and take blame, and so on. But the message is the same; people that believe they are going to be rewarded for risks, and left alone to manage themselves, will step up to the plate. Those that feel they are just being criticized or attacked for failings, or that they have no voice in their lives, will resist and resent, or play it safe and do nothing (less).

Humans never really grow up. So you want to understand them, you need to know kids or teens. I liken this whole thing to teenage angst or leftover frustration at being powerless. Sure, if you give them the control they'll screw up. But if you don't give them control, they'll either do nothing or backlash even more. Some of that is their fault, and some of it is yours. Now employees are not usually teens, but they may act like them if you treat them like it.

On the other hand, if you give up the control and let them do the jobs they were hired for; don't micro-manage, let them take the risks they want and accept the responsibility, then they will work much harder to prove themselves right. If you try to force them to do what you want, they will not work as hard to prove themselves (their directions) wrong or that you were right. So if you want harder workers, let them work their way. Give up control, and give them the control that they want. They end up much more vested in the outcome, and that works in everyone's favor.

Now you can't always give up control, and ultimately it is the manager's ass on the line (especially if he knows how to take responsibility), and you can't throw away all common sense because one person thinks it should be done another way. So you can't give up control all the time. But if you truly give up control most of the time, and have motivated people, then they will be more loyal and understanding and are much more ready to accept occasional mandates and your motivations, than they are for constant ones. Or in other words; the more you listen and consider their points, the more they listen and consider yours.

It is about consensus, not dictatorships. The worst leaders are the ones that are dictators, "Do it because I say so". Who liked that as a kid, or as an adult? Even when the reasons were valid, we don't like things crammed down our throats. With a little discussion and diplomacy, you can give people time to come to the same conclusions on their own. Be a little patient, and be a little flexible, and they'll get there. So the same ends can be achieved either way; just one is motivating and empowering to the employees, and the other is demotivating and emasculating (effeminizing?). Mentorship is not a dictatorship. Give them directions and help; not mandates and dictates.

Not every decision you make is going to be popular. But if you are popular, the company is healthy, and the people are happy; then they are more likely to be accepted. Use power rarely, and you magnify its effectiveness when used. Abuse power (by overuse), and you will find it is quite diluted when you need it.

Communications

People need to know they can succeed, what it takes to succeed, and where they are going. They are afraid of the unknown and afraid of failure, or at least unhappy with it. If you tell someone you have something they don't like in this box, their minds will race with all the negative possibilities. Some people think that not knowing the bad is worse than knowing; I've rarely found that to be the case.

A managers job is to prioritize the requirements for the people under him, help clarify the goals and milestones to success, and to convey communications and status up and down the food chain. If you can't communicate those goals, both ways, and be honest, then you will not be trustworthy or likely a very good manager. If you don't have trust, then you've earned no loyalty. Both will bite you in the ass.

The goal is to help people set up achievable goals, to see how that goal fits in the big picture, to see how things are progressing and where they are, and to address and remedy problems as soon as possible. If you blindside your people or your company, you will undermine your ability to manage far more than any negative and honest news, given as soon as possible.

Communication also flows up and down. As a manager, since you've learned to keep your hands out, you need to listen to what the people below you need to achieve success; and get it for them. I always try to bring it back to that; how can we succeed, what do we need to do from here. Sometimes it is more time, fewer features, more resources, to outsource parts, and so on. Often they come down to things that people up the food chain don't want to give up. But life is negotiation and compromise; you just have to convince the people up-the-chain, that there's enough in it for them to make it worthwhile. If you can do that, then the people down the chain will lose faith in your and your abilities, since you aren't getting them what they need to succeed. Thus being a good manager is almost always the opposite of being a kiss-ass.

There is a path to success or at least a way to improve the situation. Ask the people below you how to succeed, let them have a say in it, and try to get it for them. The more you defend the interests of your people, the more they will defend yours and put in the extra effort to succeed. The flip side is if people aren't listened to, they turn off. They figure nothing will make a difference, and they just clam up. Good ideas don't get mentioned. Improvements don't get made. And tons of opportunities are missed. They are hurt, frustrated, and they leave. Shutting down communications is almost always a way to increase risk.

Loyalty is earned. It is earned by defending your people against bad decisions, by communicating their wishes up the food chain, by listening and learning, by patience, and basically by setting an example. Bad managers often have bad teams, and often the same team would be much better under another manager. So whose fault is that? People need to feel heard and that they can influence you and the organization. They need to know where they are going, and how they are being perceived. They need to know they can succeed, and exactly how to do it. When communication starts to shut down, it isn't long before everything else will.

Pride

One of the most important aspects of motivation is pride. You need people to buy into a vision, and want to achieve the goals. They need to feel like the result is something they can be proud of. Many will tell their friends and family, some won't. But they need to feel good about doing what they are doing.

Business isn't always like that. In all honesty, three fair products may do better than one really good one. A crappy product now may be better for the quarterly report than a good product later. Of course it will screw you on the five year plan; but many people focus on the now, and not the later. They want the breadth more than the depth. That puts employees pride in direct conflict with some in the companies short term goals. That needs to be managed and balanced as well.

Also employees (especially lower level engineers, manufacturers, QA people, documentation people, and so on) are more intimate with the products than many customers. They see every flaw, they are aware of the tradeoffs. This often makes them too focused and means they miss the bigger picture. Don't only let them try to make the best product they can to assuage their egos, but give them perspective. The customers see the value. Let employees see happy customers, show them the competitive products (and those flaws), and so on. Don't try to baffle them with bullshit, show them what is better in substance and why they should be proud of their results, as well as their contributions. They will be much happier people when they have that balance.

Compensation

Companies show value to employees through compensation; money, time, and recognition. People understand this fundamentally.

Money is the most important; though not as important as people think. There is the old 80/20 rule; 20% of the people do 80% of the work. While there's some truth, it isn't like a law or anything. But there are some that are producers; workers that demonstrate what you want. If you reward that behavior, you are demonstrating loyalty to them (for their actions), and the other employees will work harder to get that carrot. If there is no one that is at that level, then the company just doesn't value its people. Employees will know either way.

There is a myth that employees don't know what others make, and shouldn't talk about salaries, and so on. While they may not know exactly, every company I've been in, ever, has had some ideas. They get who gets paid more, and who gets paid less. Assume they know, and you'll be better off than if you assume they don't. Adjust behaviors accordingly.

Personally, I prefer bonuses and rewards that are more tied to behavior than just salary. What amazes me is when companies think they are doing a good job by not paying people what they are worth. Or being penny wise and pound foolish. Usually, they will lose those people; and the cost of replacing them far outweighs what they would have paid them in the first place. In the end, well or fairly compensated employees probably know where they are at, and will work accordingly, as will the under-compensated. I'd rather have 3 motivated employees than 9 unmotivated ones. And 3 highly compensated people will cost you less than 6 under-compensated ones. Just do the math. Get rid of the dead wood (or teach them to produce), and reward the producers.

There are many ways to compensate people that aren't just about money. People will stay in lower-paying jobs for many reasons; they get the big picture.

Often it is just because they like the environment or their peers. So you can compensate employees by making an environment that they enjoy working in. Sometimes that is looser clothing requirements, better office or facilities, free sodas or other little perks. Mostly it is about people. Official channels need to monitor and control the backchannel. If there's personal attack and vendettas and politics and so on; it is the responsibility of the organization (and its leaders) to put the kibosh on it. Find the cause, and fix it; let them know that bad behaviors aren't tolerated and that we are adults and professionals. Most will reign it in, when they realize they will be called on it. And the flip side is that if it is tolerated, then many will realize they can get away with it. Make the environment a good place to work; physically, emotionally, and you will have more motivated people.

Time is a huge compensation factor. If you clock-watch on people, they will reflect that as well. On the other hand, a little flexibility on when they get things done; as long as they get their work done, and things work better for all involved. After a crunch, you give them a break. People get "fair" and so you want to treat them respectfully of their time.

Time goes beyond just comp-time and other things. It is the way we show respect. There are many ways this is applicable, but meeting management to me is a metaphor for lots of time-management, and its importance can't be overstressed. Don't have frivolous meetings, always have a clear agenda, get things done. If you are late for meetings, you're telling people you don't value their time. They will reflect that contempt for their productivity in their own output. When you have a meeting with them, you make sure they get the focus of your attention. You take notes, you listen to people, you let them know that what they have to say has value. If you let meetings wander, or you are disinterested, you make them repeat things because you didn't pay attention the first time, and so on, then you don't act like a responsible example of good time-management or that you value their time. They will follow your example.

Recognition is a great way to praise people. People are highly motivated by their egos. They want to feel good about themselves. Recognition is cheap. It isn't easy to learn to do well; but critical to being a good manager. Private praise bonds people. Public praise works even better. "While there were some trails on this project, the team pulled it out, and we got it done. Good job. I'd especially like to thank X, Y, and Z, who went above and beyond the extraordinary efforts that everyone put in". Little plaques, diplomas, awards are cheap and some pretend they are silly. They are silly if they are not based on merit but on politics, or if they are overused. But even when overused, they are valued by the people that earned them.

Conclusion

We ended the compensation section with discussing recognition, and we're back to what we opened the article on; which is praise and appreciation. We've come full circle.

This is only part of what it takes, but it is a lot of the important parts. Give people the tools they need to succeed, give them praise for success. Focus on motivation and the spiritual and emotional health of the people and the company. People care about their environment. People want to feel like they are valued and have control; and value includes time, recognition and compensation. People want to please people, and they want to succeed and win. So turn losses into successes, give them attainable goals, let them have what they want - and they will work hard to make sure you have what you want.

Many of these things all feed on other parts or feed on themselves. But it is pretty basic. Building healthy companies are like building any healthy relationships or healthy individuals. If people like being around you, they will come back. If they don't like your company, they will be around you less often. People want love, faith, hope, charity, pride, recognition, appreciation and security (safety). They want to know where they are, where they are going, and how they should get there. Give it to them. If they have these things that make them happy people, they will make better products, better teams, and a better company

Written 2003.05.23