The secret to people management? Less managing, more peopling
10 powerful strategies to shift your focus from tasks to relationships.
Managing people can be a deceptively simple task. Having experience as a “human skilled in craft” doesn’t necessarily make you a natural expert at leading other humans skilled in the same craft.
Team members interested in becoming managers seem to always ask me the same questions:
- What did I experience while transitioning to a people-manager role?
- What have I learned all these years?
- What would I suggest individual contributors focus on to become better people managers?
Over the last nine years, some of my answers have changed and some have stayed largely the same. However, the most fundamental question aspiring people managers must ask themselves doesn’t appear on the list above.
Do you care about people?
I still remember February 2012. I’d finally found the courage to ask Archana Rao, my then-manager at Cisco (and Atlassian’s current CIO), what it would take for me to become a people manager.
“I see you to be really good at your craft and work,” she told me. “But are you good with people? Do you care about people? Or do you just want the title for other reasons?”
Her unvarnished honesty caused me to pause and think. If I wanted to be a leader, it wouldn’t be enough to care about the success of a project or the company, or even my own success. I would need to care about the people who depended on my leadership for their success.
My people-management strategies and principles
Here’s how I channel the philosophy of that long-ago conversation into my current management practices.
1. Be a decision sharper, not a decision-maker
After experimenting with this idea over a few years, I have realized that teams work well when you invite them to shape a decision, not when you make a decision for them. This is one of the most important principles to me.
When I was studying at Stanford University, I learned about the “IKEA effect” as it relates to problem-solving. Like the affinity and attachment many harbor for the IKEA furniture they construct themselves, I learned that involving others in the decision-making process leads to the solution becoming their “baby.” Or put another way:
If you build a polished prototype others will see flaws. If you build a rough prototype, others will see potential.
Professor Baba Shiv, Stanford University
Shaping a decision involves asking the right questions and sharing examples and guidance – but not giving the answers. It may take time to get to the decision, but this approach improves the likelihood of the decision sticking, which, in turn, reinforces honoring commitments.
You can apply this in-person or through a DACI decision-making framework.
With decision-shaping, you’ll see that your team will begin to think about the impact not only on them, but on downstream teams, too. A good people manager will allow team members to arrive at the best decision, while being constructively critical in offering analysis and recommendations toward the decision.
Do note that my approach is centered around cultivating and motivating a team to arrive at a decision, not around manipulating them to make a decision I may favor.
Take every opportunity to promote accountability. While this takes effort to instill and reinforce, it will ALWAYS lead to improved trust and performance.
Back when I was a newbie people manager, I felt very uncomfortable when team members didn’t meet deadlines. Then, I would do their work in order to not let the stakeholders down.
The problem was obvious to my management coach who said, “Pranav, I understand it helps the stakeholders, but your team members are not learning to be accountable. Your role is to clear roadblocks, manage risks, and find the resources your team needs to manage its commitments.”
It actually took time to get used to not jumping in! What helped me make the transition was an accountability model that I set up for my team. I decided that, as a team, we needed to agree on being accountable. I developed the following rules that were easy to follow:
- Think thoroughly before committing to a project and its dates.
- Once you’ve committed, honor your commitments (or renegotiate the commitments if circumstances change).
I also discussed the attitudes and behaviors I expected. These open conversations led to less resistance from team members, while allowing them to demonstrate respect for each other.
3. Focus on people over tasks
Placing people over tasks not only results in better professional relationships, but powerful personal connections that can make work more meaningful – and even lead to strong friendships outside of work.
I learned to make an extra effort to know the individuals on my team as human beings, not just employees. We have regular 1:1’s and periodic lunch or coffee meetings. We even took walks when we were working in the office, which helped to promote relaxation and better communication on both sides.
I also became a better speaker by trying not to sound like I was complaining all the time.
But most importantly, I became a better listener.
By listening more, I found myself smiling more, and I felt genuinely interested. In short, I began to care more for what other people had to share! And I spoke a lot less about tasks!
4. Not everything will make it to production
Be sure your entire team understands the reason if a project doesn’t launch. They don’t need to agree, but they do deserve to know why.
Not all efforts lead to successful business outcomes. Priorities change, required efforts may have been underestimated, budgets get tightened, key skill-holders leave, or the anticipated ROI or business case can be incorrect.
This can negatively affect the team. Everyone likes to see their hard work result in something completed, no matter how minor. The antidote is to help your team understand why a project didn’t make it to production.
The best example I can share is from earlier in my career when I was still an IT architect. I worked on an initiative for multiple quarters with 50 other team members. It was bleeding edge, we’d already spent more than $10 million, and it was the heart of the project.
During testing, we realized a key element was not going to scale. Imagine the dread we faced. I was particularly affected because it was the first time I had to “pull the plug” and let a project die.
But as we were shelving it, we learnt that if we had not cut the cord, the initiative would have cost more than $10 million per year to maintain due to this major flaw. The lesson learnt was: a little pain now is worth avoiding much more later.
5. Saying no is ok, but…
One of the most frequent pieces of advice I have shared with newbie managers is that it’s ok to say no. But be prepared to share your logic.
One of my first 360-feedback sessions as a newbie manager revealed that while I was comfortable saying no, I was failing to provide reasons to team members and stakeholders. The result was they could not understand and appreciate my decisions. This affected trust!
Some managers feel threatened when they have to explain. But non-transparency generates questions about a manager’s leadership.
If necessary, try to write down your reasons. In fact, if you can’t write them down, perhaps you aren’t being thorough enough before saying yes or no.
6. “I” is “WE” now
As a people manager, you are no longer representing your individual self. You are now symbolic, representing your team and the team’s values and mission. It’s a great responsibility to be the embodiment of your people, their contributions, and their successes and failures.
We all hear that politics in the workplace is bad, but I’ve learnt that there is a difference between “Politics” – with a capital P – and “politics.”
Politics with a capital P, to me, means “organizational interests.” Whereas politics with a lowercase P can mean “self interest.”
As people managers, we have a duty to move away from the politics of self interest to the Politics of organizational interests.
People managers have to build the right guardrails for team success and, at the same time, be ready to own the effects of all the positive and negative outcomes. You are your team’s shield and banner.
So when you’re required to make decisions, you’re making them as a symbolic reflection of the team, its culture, and its values.
7. Be natural in your style
Aside from playing to our natural strengths, being natural in style is important. It takes less energy to be your true self than to appear as someone you’re not. And being natural can help you be vulnerable, which is an important leadership trait.
We all have natural strengths. I urge newbie managers to recognize theirs.
To stay in touch with my natural strengths, I use 360 feedback with my team, peers, and stakeholders. I also supplement feedback with psychological assessments like Instinctive Drives (my ID is 6337).
I’ve learned to be so comfortable sharing my areas of improvement that I’m ok asking for feedback and help with a behavior I may not want. Most importantly, I try to make these changes part of my subconscious way of working so that my natural style isn’t disrupted.
You will be more comfortable with all your team engagements by being natural, and it will definitely help you be sincere and honest when you have hard conversations.
8. Hire unconventional talent
Aside from traditional candidates with requisite technical skill sets, I also seek teammates who may not fit the traditional mold but who bring a growth mindset – they demonstrate curiosity, they’re open-minded toward industry breakthroughs, and have an eagerness to innovate – even if their technical skills need development.
As I see it, the rapid pace of technological change means we need some team members who are more versatile, have non-traditional viewpoints, and aren’t hyper-focused on a particular technology “religion.”
The additional energy and learning curves to get an unconventional new hire up to speed often prove to be worth the investment, and can yield a huge positive impact with respect to diverse viewpoints and out-of-the-box problem solving.
9. Attrition will happen
Sometimes you will not be able to support your team members’ career aspirations. Other times, they may simply need a change in challenge and work culture. Do not take these things personally.
If you’re putting people first, then you’re also encouraging them to pursue their aspirations wherever they may lead. If they are ready to move on, do your best to help them with internal mobility. This also aligns with being capital-P Political. Consider how their aspirations might align with the organization’s interests.
10. Celebrate failure
Create conditions so that team members feel open to making mistakes and admitting vulnerabilities, with the intention of turning mistakes into opportunities for group learning. Then celebrate!
In a culture like Atlassian’s that strongly encourages risk and innovation, I cannot stress celebrating failure enough.
The best way to instill this principle is by talking about your own mistakes in detail and what you have learned.
While it helps to exploit current strengths, it is equally important to explore new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Share stories of failure and discuss what the group learned. In fact, find a way to celebrate failures by celebrating whatever risks and innovations come out of the effort.
All failures qualify. It can be a failed experiment, a failure in hiring the right talent, even operational failures that require you to work hard for the cause and the fix.
To scale and become a high-performing team, you not only need caring and sharing, you need daring. And all dares come with a huge chance of failure. Get comfortable with that.