Your manager has a default management mantra. You see it when they are not paying attention and a problem – large or small – presents itself. It’s the sound and shape of their first reaction. Their default reaction. And after a few months, everyone knows their mantra.
Here are a couple of my least favorite mantras. I’m going to first explain the worst-case scenario for each of these mantras. I’ll follow-up with an explanation of why I believe this manager ended up with his approach. Then I’ll explain with empathy the best-case scenario for this practice and why you should squint your eyes when you get the rage and consider, “Ok, how are they trying to help?”
I’m going to use the word manager a lot here, and I’ll tell you why later.1
Management via Worry
This manager can smell disaster brewing. Their spidey-sense is tingling about… something. Their questions are often perceptive, slightly alarming, but not always headed in a consistent direction.
The Degenerate Case Your manager likely (hopefully?) has more experience than you. One of the reasons they got the gig is that they’ve successfully managed through a variety of complicated situations. That experience has given them a useful playbook, and it’s that playbook that’s backing their seemingly random questions about your project.
But are they?
Are their questions heading anywhere?
Or are they just asking worrisome questions because they know that is their role in this meeting?
Ask questions, manager. Ask lots of questions because I know you have the playbook, and I don’t. However, if your questions are hazily framed pointless worry rather than a slowly refined somewhat opaque journey, then I am suspect. I worry that you believe your job is to worry pointlessly, to assume the worst without facts, because that’s worked for you in the past. This teaches me nothing, this does not move the project forward, and your worry is a useless productivity tax on the team.
There is a particularly virulent strain of Worry Management that I think of as Got’cha Management. This manager isn’t as worried as they are motivated to find errors in your product, strategy, or thinking. They search for weakness in logical reasoning, and when they find it, there is an omnipresent silence in the room where you silently wonder, “Am I any good at this?”
The Empathetic Case: The empathetic version of Management via Worry is one of my favorite parts of the job: Tasting the Soup. As I wrote in the original article:
In a meeting where an individual or team is presenting a complex idea or project, my job as the leader is soup tasting. It’s sampling critical parts of the idea to get a sense of how this soup was made. Who are the critical people? What are the critical parts? Which decisions matter? I don’t know. I do believe that a pre-requisite for leadership is that you have experience. You’ve had trials that have resulted in both impressive successes and majestic failures. These aggregate lessons define your metaphoric soup tasting ability. When your team brings you a topic to review, it is this experience you apply to ask the critical soup questions.
The key with proper Soup Tasting is collective learning. As you taste, you explain to the team, “This taste… I’ve tasted this before, and this is what I learned from that particular soup.” This practice both gives you signal and explains to the team what you are learning. The sharing of your experiences as lessons is what changes their perception from being critiqued to being supported.
Management via Crisis
This manager appears hugely motivated when the sky is falling. They thrive on the thrill of disaster. They love stopping everyone in their tracks and throwing them into a war room where they personally manage the crisis into a predictable calm.
The Degenerate Case The Crisis Manager loves the crisis because they get feel like they are actually doing something measurably valuable. It appears that since the sky just fell that their Crisis Services are required.
Really, did the sky fall?
Or is your manager just bored? Or uninformed about the actual situation?
The degenerate case of the Crisis Manager is that Crisis Management becomes their only strategy for affecting change quickly. When they detect even a hint of crisis, they rush to press the big red STOP button, invite everyone to the Crisis Slack Channel, fire up the war room video conference, and begin, “This is the only thing we’re working on until further notice.”
The Empathetic Case: Process is documented culture. How a team gets a familiar thing done should be broadly understood by the team. This is how we fix a bug. This is how we do a code check-in. This is how a feature is designed. This is how executive sign-off occurs.
Process comfortably and efficiently describes the common path. Process does not define what to do when the indescribable occurs. A crisis or a disaster does not neatly fit into the common path; it’s when you need someone to swoop in, break the glass, and put out the fire.
Can confirm. It’s a thrill to have everyone’s attention. Can confirm. Disasters are often the best way to burn down and reinvent old dusty process. Can confirm. Reputations are built when the sky falls.
A Coping Mechanism
We done? Good. That was a hard article to write. Partially because I’ve first hand seen all of these mantras in play, but, worse, I can pinpoint moments in my management career where I’ve fallen back on Gotcha management or when I’ve thought Worry management was just what this meeting needed from me. Once I created a Crisis because I believed I had specialized knowledge of the situation, but really I was just bored.
All of these mantras are habits developed as a coping mechanism for the increasing loss of control managers feel over their growing organizations. It’s the hardest part of becoming a manager, the giving away of your legos to allows others to do the actual satisfying building combined with the necessity to guide that building at an increasingly hazy distance.
There is a reason I used the word management throughout this article. These mantras, these defaults ways of managing in their degenerate cases, aren’t leading; they are managing. They are getting by with the strategic move that worked for you years ago but has now developed into a boring, predictable tactic.
- Good to remind you of the clause that has been on the About page for a couple of decades: my stories are fabrications and never about real people except when it’s about me. ↩