Thoughts on being a good manager

A drawing of a cartoon man pointing upwards

Heads up! This post was written in 2015, so it may contain information that is no longer accurate. I keep posts like this around for historical purposes and to prevent link rot, so please keep this in mind as you're reading.

— Cory

Some thoughts I had after conversations with a friend who has a terrible manager. This isn't nearly a comprehensive list, but it highlights many of the problems they were experiencing. Maybe my friend's manager will stumble upon it some day.

When someone has a grievance, take an objective stance. Listen to them, understand what they're trying to tell you, and react accordingly. Don’t deny issues that really are issues, and don’t ignore them in hopes that the problems just go away. They won’t. They’ll just snowball into bigger issues.

You’re the manager. You’re in charge of making sure the organization is running smoothly. If an employee is faltering, it’s your job to step in and help get things back up to speed. Don’t expect everyone else to pick up the slack—they have a lot of work to do too. As a manager, you’ll gain a lot of respect for getting “down in the trenches” when the team really needs you.

Discipline employees when they need to be disciplined. Have a plan in place and follow it for everyone. No exceptions, otherwise you risk enabling abusers.

Don’t be afraid of confrontation. This is a sign of weakness, and cunning employees will take advantage of it time after time. When the moment comes, stand your ground, explain the problem clearly, and be prepared to offer a solution.

Realize when something is out of an employee’s control (e.g. bereavement leave) versus under an employee’s control (e.g. personal appointments). In case of the latter, insist they try to make time for it outside of their normal work schedule. If that’s not possible, require them to make up missed time before work, after work, or during lunch. This compromise asserts the employee’s value to the organization and will significantly reduce absenteeism.

Nobody deserves preferential treatment, no matter who they are or what their situation is. Business is business, and if someone has committed to a position, they should honor that commitment or step down until they have the time and energy to resume their obligations.

When you hire someone and train them for a position, let them do their job. Correct them when mistakes are made, but if the job is being done correctly and with reasonable efficiency, don’t keep stepping in to micromanage them. This is frustrating for employees, and it’s also a trait of poor management skills.

Treat your employees like an investment: pay them well and they will perform well. Don’t tell them that the organization doesn’t have enough money to provide raises—most employees are smarter than that. Give them what they’re worth and set goals for them to earn more. This will motivate them, reduce turnover, and show compassion. Your employees will remember that and will be more apt to stick around and do great work.

A workplace is like a team: you have a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. Each player in a team has a specific purpose. When one of those players is underperforming or absent, the rest of the team has to make up for it. When this happens on a regular basis, morale suffers and players become disgruntled—some may even choose to quit. As the “team captain”, this is your fault—not theirs. Don’t let other players adversely affect the rest of the team. It’s your job to step in and keep everything in line.

Know when to let someone go. It's always better for the organization and the employee to try to work things out. Alas, the time will come when an employee is no longer a good fit for their position and you need to be OK with letting them go. It's not the end of the world. In many cases the employee will find a new job that suits them even better. If nothing else, being let go is an eye opener that can actually help them become a better employee at their next job.

At the end of the day, you're the manager. How your organization operates is a reflection of you. So here's something to keep in mind. It's a quote from Napoleon that I hope will resonate in your thoughts for the rest of your management career: "An army of lions commanded by a deer will never be an army of lions."