In my last job, a colleague who would often complain to our director about my style. He’d rail: “How is he getting anything done? All I see him doing is walking around with a coffee cup!” What he didn’t realize was that my coffee cup was my prop, my entry ticket into a casual conversation with my employees as well as the administrative staff. He also failed to see that the coffee cup was my Trojan Horse, allowing me to “sneak in” deeper connections with my employees.
Many business schools don’t teach you how to interact with your employees to elicit maximum effort and engagement (or at least my MBA program didn’t). Promotions up the organizational ladder are made without these skills firmly tucked into the newly-minted manager’s back pocket. I know this from over 20 years in the corporate trenches managing projects, programs and people. I was left to develop my own style for managing the most critical factor to the overall success of the company: my employees. Here are three tips (that I had to learn in the trenches) to help you manage your staff more effectively.
Give Away the Home Field Advantage
A call to your boss’ office induces a similar reaction no matter the subject matter to be discussed. It makes us nervous and anxious and you begin to replay any number of scenarios of the upcoming conversations in your head – most of them made up, off base, or flat out unreasonable. The dialogue in your head often goes to the worst of places: did I forget to answer a client email or call? Did I mess up my time sheet or expense report? Am I going to be laid off? So what makes the employee react so negatively? It comes down to the balance of power (weighted in the manager’s favor) and the “home field” advantage. No matter the relationship between supervisor and staff member, the balance of power is real and weighs heavier on the employee than it does on the manager. Consequently, the manager needs to be vigilant not to put his or her thumb on the scale to further exacerbate the anxiety. My approach was to engage my teams in a way to find out the latest progress on their projects or challenges that needed to be addressed without it becoming a big deal or them feeling like I was Torquemada at the Spanish Inquisition. As often as possible, engage your people where they are comfortable, not necessarily where you feel most comfortable. There are lots of places to have tough and not-so-tough conversations that allow you to reduce the anxiety. Take your employee for a walk to the local Starbucks for a casual cup of coffee, or in the conference room, or even standing by the water cooler. I found this to be a very successful approach. My colleague who complained about my style never understood this and was never able to unlock his team members’ full engagement, potential and openness.
Being Right is Overrated
We all have a tendency, myself included, to develop tunnel vision and the perspective that our opinion about how to proceed with a project is the right approach. We are also slow to recognize that we might be on the wrong track and the light ahead is not a project milestone but a freight train coming our way. This often happens from the nature of hierarchical organizations that value senior management’s opinion over the “boots on the ground” employee. As a result, as employees move up within the organization they come to believe that they must be right because their bosses were right and so on and so on. The message to a newly-promoted manager is that he or she “should be right” because it’s clear that upper management valued the judgment and decision making by sheer virtue of the promotion. The brave approach is to break the cycle and, when appropriate, let your staff know that you made a mistake or, even better, implement one their ideas without admitting your failure. Think about how empowering it would be for a junior member of your staff to feel heard and then see his or her concept come to life. Even if you don’t want to expose yourself by admitting you were wrong, you can become a “hero” boss by letting others know how right your staff members can be.
Don’t Fear All Four-Letter Words
I’m a big fan of Emeril Lagasse, one of the first celebrity chefs to enter the greater public consciousness, and his catch phrase of “Let’s kick it up a notch.” Unless you work in the food industry you may be thinking “how does this apply to me and my staff?” It is all about the first word – let’s. That one little word tells your staff that this is a collective effort and that you are in the trenches with them. Let’s get this done. Let’s figure out some solutions. Let’s pull together as a team. Such a small word but yet so powerful. First, it is so important for your staff to feel that they are part of a larger effort and, second, that you as the manager are not above getting your hands dirty and helping. Beyond just using the word, the boss needs to put it into practice. He or she needs to fully embrace a collective approach and promote collaborative, team-oriented behavior. While actions speak louder than words, an effective manager needs both action and words. Let’s think about the impact of that small four-letter word when you engage your team.
If you are sitting behind your desk reading this while drinking your morning coffee from your favorite mug (mine was from my alma mater) please stop now. Get up and go talk to someone in your office, coffee cup in hand of course, and find out what’s really going on. Meet them on their turf, treat them like the savvy professionals they are and let them know you are all in this together.
Michael Riegel is the Managing Director of Engineers Are People Too and has spent over 20 years in the engineering and construction management industries managing projects and staff. Michael recognized the need for additional management skills to help technical professionals “elevate their games” and has been providing training programs to technical organizations and staff since founding the company in 2012.
“Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”