The Manager's Cheatcode

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. Author of The Management Delusion and We Need to Talk About Scrum.

March 02, 2020

When I first got started in management, I was at a growing company with a lot of inexperienced managers. We would receive training as a group each week before going off to our respective departments to try to implement what we had been taught.

At the end of our first year together an employee satisfaction survey was carried out, and as part of our training we all got together to go through the results. We found a clear difference between how my department answered and how everyone else did. Overwhelmingly, it was clear that people in my department felt valued, and believed I had their best interests at heart and cared about their well-being. This was not the same anywhere else.

We set about trying to figure out why.

The initial and obvious assumption was that I had simply been managing them better. So we talked about what it was specifically I had been doing. Were my one-on-ones better, or was I sticking to the feedback model more accurately? Was I more consistent and dependable? Was I a great coach?

As it turned out, none of this was the case. It actually seemed more like the opposite was true. I had objectively been a much worse manager than any of my colleagues. I had been incredibly inconsistent with almost everything. I’d made commitments then forgotten about them, I’d randomly changed my mind about stuff I wanted done, I’d cancelled one-on-ones with 5 minutes notice because I’d had other stuff to do. I had really not even been a good manager, let alone a great one. So it made no sense to us that people in my department felt so much more valued than anywhere else.

I don’t remember how long we spoke about it for, but it was a long time. We covered everything. There simply had to be something I was doing well that the others weren’t, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it. We were all getting pretty exasperated trying to work it out, when something occurred to me…

Did they actually care about their people?

I asked them that question, and I saw immediately from the looks on their faces that they didn’t. I realised something that day that shaped my entire management career. The tools we are given as managers - the one-on-ones, the communication models, the active listening techniques - these are all tools to make people feel valued and cared about. But people aren’t stupid, and if you don’t actually care about them, these are just tricks. They won’t work.

The reason my team felt valued despite me being an objectively bad manager was simply that I actually did value them. Genuinely. I wanted all of them to do well, it was important to me. I viewed it as my job to help them get the most out of work. When I messed up I apologised, not to be polite, but because I was actually sorry. When they did well I was happy, when they were struggling I worried for them, not for the results or for me, but for them as people. I wanted the best for them.

And it turned out they just knew, they could feel it, because they were human beings.

We know when someone cares about us, and we know when someone doesn’t. They all knew I cared, so they forgave me for my near constant mistakes as a manager. When the survey came around they didn’t think about the times I’d let them down or made mistakes, they just thought about the guy they knew that had - in his own flawed way - always tried to look out for them.

I’m glad I have all the management tools I have at my disposal. I believe all managers should learn them and that they are incredibly valuable. But if you care about your people - genuinely care about them - that will shine through even if you mess those things up a lot.

My co-founder and I have a relationship that mainly involves screaming at each other. There is no feedback model, no coaching, no active listening. We both shout until we’re tired, then we pick the useful information off the carcass of the conversation. We know we care about each other though, and we know we can trust each other, so none of the bad stuff really matters. We forgive each other for all of it.

Learn all the management tools, get as good at them as you can be because they help you do the right things at the right time. But if you don’t care about your people, the tools won’t help you that much.

And if you do…you get to mess up way more often.

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