This March, we launched our first major research initiative. We wanted to understand how modern tools and technologies, like Flock, are shaping communication at work and making a difference in people’s quality of life in the workplace.
In the process of conceiving and executing our research, however, I had an unpleasant realization. While workplaces are still run by people, technology is increasingly a crutch for managers to get work done with minimal personal engagement.
Modern messaging tools have made it incredibly easy to perform core management tasks like getting status updates and answering simple questions, but they’ve also made room for bad managers that forget to perform the equally important tasks of listening to and developing their employees.
It turns out that in the rapidly evolving modern workplace, a number of fundamentals of managing people are left by the wayside, especially by younger managers.
For Dummies: Listen
The venue for the most common mistakes, as well as the greatest opportunity for a manager to make a difference in their employee’s life, is the one-on-one meeting.
The first big mistake I see modern managers commit is asking vague, open-ended questions (“Anything you want to tell me?” or “How’s everything?”) or, even worse, asking yes/no questions. While it may be well-meaning, “What’s up?” is still a downright lazy question to ask!
The art of conversation, or the lack thereof, is the biggest barrier keeping managers from effectively doing their jobs. This is most glaringly obvious during one-on-one conversations.
A good way to phrase a question is to be specific and be respectful, without being patronizing. For instance, ask “How do you feel about the campaign we’ve been planning? Is there anything we can do better?” rather than “Have you checked if everything is done on the campaign?”
The outcome is twofold – your team member feels like you are genuinely interested and invested in their work, and in most cases, this leads to a far more constructive conversation.
Another habit that managers today find hard to break, is the inability to deal with silence in a conversation. Silence can be used effectively in a conversation to create a safe space for employees to voice their concerns. You’ll often find that, when given a space of silence in which they can pause before continuing to speak, people will tell you things that they hadn’t originally intended to. I typically let my team members lead our one-on-one meetings, and pauses in the conversation give them a safe space to let me in on their concerns.
Be the "Clarity Generator"
Think of a manager like a machine that converts ambiguity into clarity. At Flock, Bhavin, as CEO, ingests the ambiguity of the entire global marketplace and converts that into clear strategic objectives for myself and my fellow executives. I then take the ambiguity of those strategic objectives and convert them into actionable targets and tactics for my VPs. They, in turn, convert the ambiguity of my targets into clear projects and action items for teams and individual contributors. This is important because it is these folks who are ultimately responsible for moving the levers that achieve the company’s ambitions.
For a manager to be the clarity-generator is imperative, because people inevitably do their best work when given clear goals and then provided the support, guidance, and resources they need to achieve desired outcomes.
Thinking of the manager simply as a source of clarity also creates an interesting shift within a team. It empowers team members to take ownership of the work to be done.
I ask my go-to-market team at Flock to set their own outcomes and key results (OKRs) for the quarter and present them to me, rather than me setting targets for the team. This isn't because I can't create OKRs, or because I don't trust the team to execute without presenting the targets to me, but because making the team teach ME forces them to internalize and interpret my strategy in such a way, that I will know if I've miscommunicated something to them!
In this philosophy, the role of the leader changes - from directing to enabling people to do their best work by creating opportunities for them to take ownership of tasks. Giving them credit for their achievements is simply an incentive like no other for fantastic outcomes.
Managing employee happiness is part of the job
One thing that business schools don’t teach you is that managing employee happiness is a key part of the job. The people I’ve worked with have either been invested in the well-being of their teams and evolved into leaders, or they have ignored this aspect of the job and remained mere senior managers.
Being invested in the professional development of team members, and enabling them to grow their careers in their desired direction is often the most important thing a manager can do to keep their team motivated. You either help your people grow or you watch them go.
This also extends to compensation. Ultimately, there will be people who do the job for less but, let’s face it, would you prefer to work with an efficient resource or an inexpensive one? The key here is to stay ahead by being invested in your employees. I very rarely find that paying top dollar actually gets you the best people (in fact many of the people who go to the highest bidder end up being terrible employees). But you need to be involved enough in your employees’ lives that you know if they're significantly unhappy with their compensation levels or if the compensation is causing them personal or family strain. They'll endure that for only so long.
Knowing to take into consideration people’s personal investments when they are shared isn’t just management spiel, it’s just plain human sense. Too many managers today ignore the really simple stuff.
You set the tone for your team’s culture
One last takeaway from the bit about communication – as a manager, a lot of what you do yourself sets a cultural context for your team. If you make a habit of sending messages to team members or co-workers at 2 am on a Sunday morning, whether you intend to or not, you’re setting the expectation that they should respond at 2 am on a Sunday morning. For most workplace scenarios, I can’t imagine that’s a fair or healthy cultural expectation to have. So if you do have a mid-weekend Eureka! moment, choose wisely – put it in an email (which is probably a better place for long rants anyway), and schedule it for Monday morning. Your team and their sleep cycles will thank you for it!
Ultimately, it’s down to a simple platinum rule - communicate unto others as you would have them communicate unto you.
It's best to remember that while modern workplace tools have made work easier and richer, real fulfillment for you as a manager will come with the trust from your team that you’ll be in their corner - for their big wins and for their misses.