Bringing yourself to work

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Management 101

Wow, this is so much more tiring than programming…

Those who manage others: have you ever had one of those days where you feel like work has completely sapped you of all of your emotional energy? Don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Being a manager exposes you to a rich spectrum of challenges at work. Of course, you still have the technical matters that come along with working at a technology company, and those are difficult enough at the best of times. Yet now you have to care personally about the well-being of those in your team. When times are good and your team is performing well and enjoying their work, it’s hard to imagine your role being more fulfilling. When times are bad, however, well… they’re really bad.

So let’s paint a picture of the bad times. In addition to being accountable for the delivery of a large, complex project that is overrunning, you know that Bob is really unhappy because he didn’t get a good pay rise in his end of year review. However, this was totally out of your hands this time around; the budget is very tight. You’re uncertain as to whether he wants to quit and what that means for you finding a replacement. On top of that, Susan has disclosed that she’s been having a terrible time at home because her partner is very ill. Also, Jack isn’t performing well and his stubbornness means he’s having trouble admitting it to himself, which is a barrier to his eventual improvement. To put the icing on the proverbial cake, the company laid off 10% of staff two months ago because of fierce competition in the marketplace resulting in many lost deals that looked totally safe. Everyone, therefore, is understandably nervous about their roles and the threat of further layoffs. As well as carrying this you’ve got your own stuff to deal with: pressure from above, below, and outside of work, your family at home.

How much should you care about everyone’s personal issues when deep down you’re really struggling to stay positive in your own mind?

It’s your job to care

You should care. Because that’s your job. Plain and simple. It’s very hard and it’s very emotional, but it’s a core principle of being a good manager. There is no other way to look at this particular situation. For your staff, you are their rock, mentor, and confidante. Technical issues can be solved by studying literature, algorithms, and documentation, but personal issues can only be solved by being present and being human.

If you are reading this because you are thinking about becoming a manager, then this is often the part that you aren’t told about explicitly. You may read a job description and see that you will be responsible for delivering a key part of the product with your team; making your staff perform at the best of their abilities; hiring the right people, and so on: all of these activities may make you imagine an army captain at the crest of a hill clutching a flag. However, in reality, it’s not at all about machismo and whip-cracking. Fostering an environment in which people can thrive and be happy means understanding their personalities, what drives them, and being there for them through good times and bad. This may sound like it has parallels to the job of a counselor, and I would argue that there are aspects of that comparison that are true; except you also need to get your staff to ship as well as making sure that they are happy!

Bringing your whole self to work

The phrase “bringing your whole self to work” has become fairly prevalent, and for good reason: it encompasses what you have to do in order to build a trusting relationship with direct reports, which in turn means that they feel comfortable and supported, which in turn means that you can have open, honest and challenging conversations, which in turn drives the best performance.

But what does it mean?

My own interpretation is that it highlights the parts of one’s personality that can be easy to leave at home: true emotions and weaknesses. I’ve experienced this equally in both men and women.

One may leave their emotional side at home because of a preconception that it could be deemed unprofessional to let particular sides of them show in the office. Common examples are negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and frustration. However positive emotions sometimes suffer the same purposeful muting, such as overt happiness, joy, and silliness. It could be believed that the “professional” workplace is not where these should be exposed: after all, we’re trying to be professionals, aren’t we? Yet, all of these emotions are part of us as humans and should not be suppressed. Instead, as managers, we should be understanding the character of our staff deeply enough to create the environment in which they can truly be themselves without any part of their personality being absent. This is an environment in which they can thrive. Think about ways to have fun, to celebrate success, to get angry and frustrated, to be OK with being sad and letting it show.

Weaknesses are also often left at home. Weaknesses are human. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is meant to be perfect. An environment that encourages people to hide weaknesses is an environment that stifles self-improvement. It takes great confidence to admit to weaknesses: why would anyone want to expose that they are not as good at something as others, especially if they are on a high-performing team? Yet, by cultivating an environment in which your staff can admit their weaknesses to you, and by openly sharing your own weaknesses with them, you can in turn influence a culture of mutual mentorship and teaching. An admission of a weakness is an opportunity for learning and improvement, and it is enabled through building trust.

Trust enables performance

Despite the emotional toll, especially for the new manager, that caring deeply and personally can take, it is the foundation for enabling high performance. Staff that have a trusting environment and close relationships with their manager and colleagues can be themselves and do their best work.

This trusting relationship allows for challenging and frank conversations. Talking about bad performance is not as difficult if there is trust and respect between the two parties. Without trust, bad performance may be the taboo subject that goes unspoken for too long. With trust, it’s (almost) as easy to discuss as anything else, because the feedback comes from a caring place, rather than a hostile one.

Practice talking about weaknesses

An exercise that you can try with your staff in their 1 to 1s is to both discuss your weaknesses, but you go first. Pick a selection of your own weaknesses that you can put on the table and let them know how you feel about them, as long as they are able to reveal at least one of theirs.

Here’s three of mine:

  • Given that I am now spending almost all of my time managing a division, I do worry that my technical skills are weakening. For example, the toolkits to do machine learning have dramatically changed since I last did any hands-on work. I continually worry that my technical skills are becoming irrelevant, and if I turn out to be a bad leader or I have a change of heart about my career, what is my fallback plan?
  • I am often too fast at wanting to solve problems myself rather than waiting for consensus. I know that this can be seen as a strength, but I can step on the toes of others and make them feel bad.
  • My obsession with speed means I can blaze a trail and forget about key details. This can be seen with stupid bugs in software I’ve written (fortunately others here are rewriting all of my code now…), or in the email thanking a team that just went out where I missed someone’s name off. Again. It can be quite embarrassing.

Support groups

And lastly: an open question for the readership. Being a manager, especially the higher up the org chart that you go, can be a lonely and emotionally difficult position. I often feel like I lack a support group in the same way that I did when I was an individual contributor on a team, or even when I ran one team, as there were a number of other leads I considered my peers. I think that we all need a place to get support, to vent, and to let go of some of the weight that we carry. Where do you go?


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