Contrary to some schools of thought, successful “people management” is not really a science – it’s more an art. But it’s also a skill that can be learned. Some managers are naturally blessed with the right temperament for handling people – which mostly means they make fewer unforced errors at the beginning. But, with a little self-nudge and an actual learning attitude, any manager can do just fine in their human relationships with colleagues and direct reports.
It’s important to know and not forget: your employees experience you first emotionally – by your demeanor: what you say, how you say it, and, most obviously, by what you do. You’re always dealing with some degree of pre-existing tendencies around authority and criticism. Employees have their own take, almost instantly, on what they think you think about them. You’re partly dealing with how they hope you’ll see them. It’s not that you have to be perfect, brilliant, or totally know everyone’s job down to the minutest detail, but “how you are” – the way you conduct yourself, handle yourself – is huge.
Some bosses are the driven, Type A characters who can be inspiring to work for, especially if their intelligence or creative gifts help produce tangible rewards for everyone else. But all too often employees can experience those bosses as “too much.” They’re too jarring, too anxiety-provoking to deal with comfortably. Plus, it’s hard to match the obsessiveness, or successfully get into alignment with a workaholic.
The key example a leader should set is the focus on the work, while we’re all here at work. A good manager can be the total opposite of authoritarian – light-hearted, even funny. It’s possible to have wonderful, brief conversations about family, baseball, movies – whatever – with relaxed bosses. But good bosses do tend to favor talking about, and getting back to, the work – how are we doing, what needs to get done, what can we do better, how can I help you?
The best bosses convey a relentless, “present focus” on what’s on our plate now, and notice and appreciate effort toward getting on top of things needing to be done, while pursuing the mission and organization’s goals. Obviously, it’s crucial to recognize good work, in both senses: be able to know good work when you see it, and also be generous about expressing appreciation directly – out loud in front of the team, or privately in person.
Say “thank you” anytime you reasonably can. Sure, you can overdo the praise, especially if it seems like you’re just laying it on. But reacting positively to praise is a well-known, powerful truth about people and is actually motivating. People accurately know you’re watching, that you’re seeing what’s really going on, and are ready to respond right away to problems. That’s the best kind of trust.
And in that regard, integrity is more than not lying in a court of law; it’s about generosity and honorable motivation around giving credit and accepting blame. Taking others’ efforts for granted is a major mistake, and it’s noticed right away if it seems like you’re trying to take credit for other peoples’ work. (And it hardly needs to be said that, if you actually get caught doing that, it’s a damaging blow to your credibility.)
Go the other way – convey to everybody that you’re the fortunate colleague of wonderful employees. Work to get them the resources they need. Shoulder blame, give credit to everyone else, and defend your people from criticism, especially from sniping, whether from outside or from on high. (That also makes it much easier to identify and stand your ground about addressing performance issues.)
Being relaxed can make all the difference. The message is that the work isn’t overwhelming: “We’re in this to succeed, and we all will succeed if we just stay focused, keep moving forward, learn from our mistakes, and support each other.” That’s not Pollyanna; that’s the way it really works at work.