4 Unconventional Ways to Manage Managers

by Saba Software | Posted | Leadership

4 Unconventional Ways to Manage Managers

[Updated September 25, 2013]: There’s one tip I’d like to add to this post originally published back in 2010: Teach your managers to be effective people managers. This may not seem like an unconventional tip but in some ways it is.

Typically, people are promoted into management because they’re good at doing their jobs. But now, they have to be good at getting other people to do their jobs. Coaching, giving feedback, motivating, setting goals, developing employees, giving direction… these are not innate skills.

Most new managers struggle with these new competencies that they need to be effective. But even more experienced managers have something to learn here. So if you’re managing managers, make them accountable for the way they manage their staff.

Invest in developing their people management skills. Coach and mentor them on the competencies they need to create an engaged and high performing workforce. Recognize and reward their performance, efforts and improvements in this area.

“Walk the talk” and model good people management practices for them.

Then do everything else suggested in this article.

A lot of companies pay lip-service to the importance of innovation and creativity, and often don’t have a clue how to create an internal culture that promotes either. What they may not realize is that in order to nurture creativity on a large scale, upper management and middle management need to be in-tune with each other, boosting each other’s creativity too. People don’t usually quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. As a manager managing other managers, it’s vital to maintain positive, functional relationships with your team.

Here are four unconventional ways to manage managers, which can help to intrinsically motivate them and, simply, make work more fun.

Reward Failure, Punish Inaction


I read a great excerpt written by Stanford business professor Robert Sutton regarding management practices and how they can cultivate or stunt innovation in business. His advice is that rather than rewarding success and punishing failure, companies should reward both and reserve punishment only for inaction. No great idea was ever conceived without generating a lot of bad ones first. Failure and success can both be the result of taking intelligent risks, and both can provide value for different reasons. They can also be rewarded in different ways. What you should be more concerned about is a middle manager who stifles thoughtful risk-taking, and resorts to phrases like “that’s not how we do things around here” when presented with new or different ideas.

Simply put, if you want to increase initiative and innovation you must encourage a business culture open to risk and change. It’s especially important to emphasize this with middle management so that they feel confident enough to step outside of the box and allow others to do the same. Where would 3M be if a young and defiant Richard Drew hadn’t ignored his boss’ orders to abandon a project that would eventually lead to the invention of masking tape? Drew’s determination also laid the foundation for 3M’s defining product, Scotch tape.

Trust Rather than Control

When I was a teenager, the more my parents tried to limit my freedom, the more I would rebel. Naturally, the second they put an ounce of trust in me and I disappointed them, I would be overcome with these icky, horrible feelings of guilt. The same principle can be applied to management. The more you trust your employees, the more they will work hard to keep your trust. Trust is an intrinsic reward that makes a person feel believed in, and makes workers want to produce. I know I perform a heck of a lot better when I’m in a supportive atmosphere and positive mind state.

The less you trust your employees, the more you control and micromanage them, the more dispensable your trust becomes to them. They’ll resort to saying whatever is necessary to get you off their backs.

Trust is an especially sensitive issue when it comes to managing managers. Micromanaging your second-tier managers is sure to cause frustration and resentment because you are assuming they can’t handle a situation and essentially, making them look bad.

This is not to say that everyone has your trust right from the get-go. To establish a trust-based work environment, people need to be on the same page. That means having similar goals and expectations, and sufficient motivation to reach them.

If you create an atmosphere where everyone can depend on each other, it becomes much easier to strike a balance between overseeing and trusting your employees.

Yes, trust must be built, but it needs a foundation first. That means letting go of the reins, giving managers the benefit of the doubt, a bit of leeway from time to time, and being open to suggestions.

Ask Them What They Need to Kick Ass


(image source)

Former project manager at Microsoft, Scott Berkun wrote a great piece on How to Manage Smart People. One of my favorite suggestions is “Ask them what they need to kick ass”. Not only does this show you respect them, you’re also giving them the invitation to step up and invest themselves fully in their work.

Tools, resources, feedback, praise, support, clarity. In order for your managers to perform optimally, give them what they need to kick ass. This means, ensuring that your managers not only understand the “what” but the “why” behind projects. Give them the full scoop, make sure it’s clear, and make sure, really sure, they understand.

The golden rule: Don’t Assume.

Set clear performance expectations in advance. Especially if you’re dealing with more than one manager, make sure everyone knows who’s going to be in charge of what.

Clarity is the remedy, and the more context you give to a particular task, the more your managers can appreciate it. If you can get managers to care about a project, chances are, their employees will too.

Being lavish in your praise and making sure feedback is an ongoing occurrence is also essential to getting your team onboard and fully charged. You shouldn’t wait for yearly evaluations to discuss a person’s performance. If they’re doing a great job, tell them why. If they achieve something, let others know. Hand out press releases or internal newsletters to help keep up morale and encourage people to strive for more. If improvements need to be made, talk about possible solutions.

Keep in mind, feedback can be sensitive and you may have to tailor what and how you say something depending on the individual’s personality. When in doubt, remember that feedback is best received when given in a timely manner, when it is honest, when it is specific (focusing on specific actions rather than vague declarations) and when you allow the recipient of the feedback to give their input too.

Make Work Easy

“Work hard” is the usual maxim we live by in business, but good management is really about making work easy. Not like sit around and do nothing easy, but everything should be set up in a simple, practical and achievable manner so that there is always a flow of new and interesting projects coming in.

Work is easy when people get along. Chemistry, and this goes way beyond high school science class, is an integral part of creating a work environment where everyone’s individual strengths can come together to form synergy. When people get along and respect each other it creates a flatter organizational structure where everyone values each other’s input no matter where they fit on the corporate hierarchy.

Knowing your managers and developing a bond with them doesn’t mean losing control of the team. It means being a coach rather than a referee. A good coach chooses the right players, assesses their strengths and weaknesses and places each person in the position where they’ll perform their best. A coach trains their players to become skilled experts; teaches them the ins and outs so they can excel on the field. If you hire people carefully, people that are motivated and confident, you should have no troubles getting them to work hard.

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