The Challenge of Becoming a Better Manager

Dark Arches
(Image supplied by Deborah Benbrook – a great ‘Leeds’ photographer – click the image to see some more of her work)
I work with managers who are trying to get better at their craft. Much better. They want to be the kind of manager who supports a team to do amazing work. To help others to really deliver to the best of their potential, both individually and as a team.
We use a set of management tools and techniques that could be described as ‘enlightened’. They are certainly based on an assumption that people are intrinsically good and want to perform well and develop their potential. However this means facing a dark truth – especially when talking about managing under-performers. No-one knowingly recruits an under-performer. And very few new recruits start off that way. There is something about the work context, something about what we as managers do that influences some people (sometimes the majority) to settle for less than their best. And it can be easy for managers to collude with them especially if that is the ‘culture’ of the organisation.
There are several reasons why making a transition to being a significantly better manager can be so difficult.
  • Firstly you have to be prepared to be obsessed by high performance, improvement and making the most of potential. Organisational rhetoric will always advocate this. However, in practice the rhetoric of excellence is dropped in favour of more pragmatic and easily achieved compromises.
  • Secondly, enlightened management practices can feel very uncomfortable especially to begin with. They are not our default management style. Our spontaneous management style is an expression of our deeply held, often subconscious, values and beliefs. And sometimes these are driven by more more traditional management concepts of power and control and more of a focus on the task than on developing the potential of the team to deliver excellence. So we wrap ourselves in the tools and techniques of enlightened management but underneath there is always a little voice saying ‘Just give a few orders, crack a few heads and get things done’. Only if we persist will we recognise that relationships are improving, more initiative is being shown, teams are performing better and genuine progress is being made. Only then will the nagging voice encouraging us to revert to the old fashioned ways start to fade away. And this is a process of substantial personal development. It is the process of becoming a different person with different attitudes and beliefs about what ‘excellence in management’ is all about. Now the tools and techniques of ‘enlightened management’ feel much more congruous with who we are as a person.
  • The third difficulty is the response of your team and the wider organisation to your changing management style. You start to use regular 121s, you give and seek feedback – frequently. Furthermore you expect it to be acted upon. You start coaching – everyone in your team – and expecting things to get better on a weekly basis. And you delegate consistently and well – not from a place that says ‘I can get some of my work done by others’ – but from a place that says ‘giving people the opportunity to take on these challenges will help them to develop and keep them interested an fulfilled in their work’. And what response do you get? Often it is a combination of surprise, discomfort, antagonism and disbelief. Usually there is a hope that if we can just keep things quiet for a while you will get over whatever training programme you have been on and things will get back to the mediocrity that passes for normal.
So the challenge of becoming a better manager is not an easy one. However it is not about mastering tools and techniques or acquiring new skillsets (although there maybe a little of this stuff). It is actually about recognising that there is a better way to manage and having the commitment and the discipline to pass through the discomfort of putting it into practice.