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Management is not about asking people to do stuff

Source |  |  BY:Steven Sinofsky, Experienced business and product development leader, investor, advisor, director

“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself” said Eleanor Roosevelt and one of the most important lessons in management. It is frequently written and talked about, yet so often misunderstood. Management is not about asking people to do stuff

The common meaning for this and what most write about is that managers should not ask people on the team to do yucky work that the manager doesn’t want to do. Or said another way, if there’s something yucky to be done then managers should join in. That’s all well and good, but is also just basic civility I think.

Management is not about asking people to do stuff.

The real lesson gets to a much deeper point. Management just isn’t about asking people to do stuff. If you think it is, then that’s the problem. Good times or bad, smart people doing creative work rarely respond to being told to do anything, let alone yucky work.

Good times or bad, smart people doing creative work rarely respond to being told to do anything, let alone yucky work.

This challenge is rooted in how people transition to management. If you’re on that path then one day you come to work and you are a manager, and for better or worse everything is different from that day forward. I know that sounds dramatic, but it really is true. One day all you worry about is getting your work done. Then all of a sudden you “have people” and you worry about whether they are getting their work done, how good is it, are they happy, did you hire the right people or fire the wrong ones, are you measuring performance well, or even is the right work getting done.

That’s kind of a big deal.

It is an equally big deal for the people that now work for you. They ask things like what will change, will my new manager appreciate my work the same, how will I know if I’m doing a good job, will I get promoted, and so on.

This is all normal. People learn, grow, develop and adjust. But the real challenge comes when a manager starts thinking “my team”, “my people”, “my project” — the use of first person is almost always the first warning sign. Linguistically that separation — there’s me and then some people — is risky at best.

This manifests itself in many ways that can bug the team and harm the culture, such as when managers talk about the work of the team in the first person — ”What I am trying to get done is…” or “I am working to improve…”. These are “we” and “team”.

The much bigger challenge that almost always follows this is when a manager starts to believe that “my people” are there to support the manager and to make the work of the manager easier. The result of this type of thinking is that a manager starts asking people to do work that benefits the manager, not the people or the work. That is asking people to do things they would not do just because they think the people are there to do them for the manager.

This is a rather insidious problem. One day the manager is concerned about something, say rate of commits or conversion of customers from trial or something. Maybe this is from a report in the press or some recent data from finance or a note from sales. The natural thing for the worried manager to do is to figure out why. To do this managers start asking for data, reports, and information. All of a sudden people are doing things for management.

Behind the scenes, people on the team are now doing queries, making charts, and trying to understand what is causing all these questions and the back-and-forth — more pivots, more views, different data slices.

At the same time, the manager thinks “this is exactly what I need to do and I need to get to the bottom of this”. In particular, managers often think they have some insight or observation that comes from their unique vantage point looking across the team (or multiple managers) or some experience they have that others don’t (“just got back from talking to customers” is a super common one).

From this moment on the manager is creating a culture that treats the team like a staff function there to support the manager. Prior to kicking off this cycle everyone was doing some work. Now they are figuring out what the manager wants and doing a whole new type of work.

I just described a crisis or a some new data resulting in this dynamic. That isn’t required. This can also get kicked off because a manager, especially a new one, has ideas how to improve the team’s work, efficiency, quality, etc. based on their own experience doing that same job. This is frequently where new processes come from, especially new weekly summaries or reports. The manager is simply working to stay on top of the work of the team which they generally believe is what managers need to be doing.

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