Contrary to some schools of thought, successful “people management” is not a science (if anything it’s more of an art.) But it’s essentially a skill that can be learned. Some managers are naturally blessed with great instincts for handling people – which means they make fewer unforced mistakes at first – but, with a little self-nudge and a learning attitude, any manager can do just fine in the area of human relationships with their colleagues and direct reports.
It’s important to know and never forget: your employees experience you first emotionally – by what you say, how you say it and, most obviously, by what you do. They have their own take, almost instantly, on what they think you think about 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 obsessive-ness, 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 kids, baseball, movies – whatever – with relaxed bosses. But good bosses do tend to favor talking about, and get 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 important to recognize good work, in both senses: be able to know good work when you see it, and also be generous about expressing it 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 your just laying it on, but appreciating receiving praise is a well-known, powerful truth about people and actual human motivation. People need to know you’re watching, are recognizing what’s really going on, are appreciating all the effort, 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; it’s about generosity and honorable motivation around giving credit and accepting blame. Taking everyone’s 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 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.