A friend sent me the link to a few of your blogs on management. I liked what you wrote but when I searched you don’t do much of those types of blogs. I really do want to be good at what I do. Would it be possible for you to write a blog about the most important lesson you learned as a manager?
Thanks for your interest. Obviously every writer is only writing in the hopes of communicating with others so it’s always great to know that readers are actually benefiting from the work. You also make a very good point that I don’t write on management much at all despite the fact that it’s one of my favourite subjects. Motivating, educating and assisting employees was always a very interesting and exciting process for me and I tended to do extremely well wherever I went. I will try to write a bit more on the subject.
In my past I had both large staffs and small, and because I love learning I used every single interaction as a test case for refining my understanding and approach. I was in management in my teens, so I have the good fortune of not only a lot of experience time-wise, but I also managed at junior and the most senior levels in all kinds of different companies in different industries in different countries. That experience has given me a great deal of very useful perspective.
My life has been like the perfect laboratory for me to use this weird skill my accident caused. But even though almost everything I do is a learning exercise at some level, it is virtually impossible for me to single out the most important thing I learned in much the same way that it’s also effectively impossible to single out the best picture at the Oscars. It’ll always be an opinion open to change as I grow and develop as a person. But still I get your point, so what I’ll do is note the key things I learned very early on, and then the biggest lesson I learned after I had refined my skills quite a bit. Remember, because of my accident this is all done by calculation. And human reactions are included in those calculations. But they are remarkably rigorous.
Let’s begin with the fact that these people we call employees are human beings first, maybe parents second, spouses third, sons or daughters fourth, maybe brothers or sisters fifth or sixth, and friends anywhere from 2nd to 5th—and in any healthy individual their status as an employee will come after that. If work ranks too high then you’re very likely to have someone who makes others worse. It is very easy to get caught-up in what the business is trying to do and we can forget that the employees are people with lives and none of them want to—nor should—live to work. Rather they should work to live. But if work steals too much of life that will be a bad deal for both the employer and the employee. Most people will work quite hard all on their own. But they will be inconsistent as employees simply because they literally have so many other roles that their lives demand they play.
Secondly, everyone lies. Your boss lies to you, your staff lies to you, and you lie to both of them. If people claim they don’t lie then offer to record them for a day and they’ll either lose their boldness or their naivete. Our cultures—particularly in schools and workplaces—are pretty punishing places. We’re far more oriented toward punishing the behaviour we don’t want than rewarding the behaviour we do want. So it makes sense that people don’t want to be responsible for things that have gone wrong or that will upset the people that control their ability to make house payments. And the angrier or more negative the manager gets, the more he or she will get lied to. Just don’t expect no lies.
If your assistant suddenly starts taking an hour and a half lunch it may be because he or she is slacking off. But it’s just as likely that she has been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and so she goes home for lunch so as not to embarrass herself at work. Or a million other possibilities that don’t have anything to do with the employee failing to be dedicated. Bottom line, you’ll always be wrong sometimes either way, but when dealing with people you’ll be much more accurate more often if you assume the best and not the worst.
The reason it’s worthwhile giving people the benefit of a doubt is because despite the reputations they give themselves, the actual truth is—people are generally quite honest and dedicated, and most people put in a fair day of work. And how much they work in that day—their work ethic—will have been established early in life and it won’t fluctuate much. But there will also be the influence of the times that they were raised in. So an older worker was raised in an environment without cell phones or the internet and there were no personal calls to or from work, and so their understanding is that work is for work and that’s non-negotiable. They’ll actually feel badly about having to do anything personal during work hours, and yet that largely blind dedication might differ greatly from a younger employee who feels their digital connectivity and freedom is an integral aspect of their very being.
Those perspective differences can make for big management differences. But what you really want to watch for is that aforementioned work ethic. Their families will have set a tone for how hard someone works when they work. So whatever you see in front of you will, over time, generally be what’s happening behind your back as well. Very, very few people will actually lie and deceive to the point where they’re a real problem, and even then that’s often linked to heavy stresses or addictions. Funnily enough, the people who do often spend a bit of time truly slacking off are the new managers. Because they feel as though they have arrived, there is often an accompanying sense of entitlement and that often drifts into irresponsibility for a short time.
So see your staff as fallible, helpful, caring people because that is overwhelmingly who they will be. Think about their overall yearly performance more than looking at any given day, because they could be either heavily up or down depending on their circumstances. If you show them support when they are down or ineffective then most will work doubly hard for you when you need them.
The one thing I did miss was terrible, but innocent. I’m glad I’m telling it to you because I can save you the agony of having done it. I had always been good about seeing my employees as individuals but the one big lesson I learned too late in life was that I not only had to see them as individuals, it turned out there was also important information contained in their demographic.
I was only able to look down in that regard. So in my 30’s I knew that my employees in their 20’s might be late more than the older employees simply because they were out at the bar whereas the older ones were primarily at home asleep from a long day of paying a mortgage and raising kids. But in my 30’s I did not even attempt to look upwards. I never wondered about the differences in the lives of the employees who were older than me. And that caused me to be both unintentionally cruel, and moreover I also surrendered capacities I could have made very good use of.
Older employees will generally have all of the usual responsibilities, plus they will often add looking after elderly parents. This is a very unpredictable thing to try to plan for and it’s also fraught with emotional energy. People are watching their parents fade—it’s generally painful and difficult. And if often eats up lots of time. I also didn’t think about the differences in the human body. As we age all kinds of things change, including how we eat, sleep and even go to the bathroom. And pride and embarrassment will often cause employees to conceal any form of socially uncomfortable behaviours so you won’t have a chance to learn they exist in most cases. You just have to operate knowing that no matter what’s changing, something’s changing.
Where I lost on value was their knowledge. Maybe not of that job or industry, but their life experience. Once you find a decent worker, someone older doesn’t need a lot of direction. They know themselves. They’ve given up trying to mimic other people’s methods. They use what works for them. And that will often initially look ineffective, mysterious or silly to someone without that experience. Just as a 20 year old knows way more than a 10 year old, a 40 year old knows way more than the 20 year old, and the 60 year old knows way more than the 40 year old etc. etc. etc.
If you wrote this question and read those blogs then you’re already on the right course as a manager because you’re choosing to learn and expand yourself. To manage well you have to want to learn, you have to want to share what you learn, and you have to genuinely like people. After that it’s simply a matter of stripping all of the busy words and ideas away so that you can access your common sense. Because good managers don’t try to figure out how to make their employees work harder, they understand how to support and enhance the work that useful and productive employees naturally do.
Thanks for the question and your point about how often I address this subject. I’ll endeavour to do so more often. And hey, when you’re managing, don’t forget it’s a third of your day. So don’t forget to have fun. Happy places always work harder.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.