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What's Your Managing Philosophy?

While the focus of my every day is more on supporting and creating initiatives that help drive others to lead their career, my wife's primary focus is on our 4 kids who are all under 8 years old. I'm not saying that they're not a focus of mine, but my wife has chosen to stay home with them, and homeschool, even before COVID forced the hand of many parents. So while I'm at the office brainstorming new ways to empower and develop our teams, my wife is brainstorming more productive ways to nurture and develop our kids. This has led her to parenting groups, books and podcasts. The most recent of which she sent my way to check out. The podcast is called "Raising Good Humans Podcast" and the episode is entitled "Everything You Need to Know About Discipline with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson".

The more I listened to the hour long podcast, the more I started to equate Dr. Bryson's philosophy on parenting, with what it takes to have a strong managing philosophy. Dr. Bryson describes two dimensions of discipline while defining discipline as teaching. The first dimension is limit setting. This is essentially setting expectations or boundaries, sticking firmly to those and holding others accountable to meet those expectations. The second is emotional responsiveness. It's referring to the amount of empathy you display for an individual. Don't confuse the dimension of emotional responsiveness with permissiveness or weakness. Empathy is not weakness, it's the strength one has to build bridges with others that may not currently exist by listening to their feelings, without criticizing them or being condescending and allowing them to feel "not alone" or wrong for feeling that way.

A great managing philosophy embraces a high amount of both dimensions. Tip the scales too far in one direction, and you're not going to be the manager you hoped to be. Here are a few examples to show what I mean:

Low (Limit Setting Dimension) + Low (Emotional Responsiveness Dimension) = Neglect

This is essentially trying to manage on cruise control. You are checked out on your team and your responsibilities as a lead or manager. You assume your team knows what they're supposed to be doing, and you may even take pride in "not meddling in their day to day". However, since you're also low on your emotional responsivness to their experience, you absolutely have no idea what's going on or how they interpret what they're supposed to be doing. Worse, neither do they. This type of manager sees "no news as good news" and can use a strong dose of reality.

If you have this type of manager, more than likely they are either clueless or just checked out completely. You should be bringing a cohesive list of concerns up to their manager or higher if need be, to get this addressed. Though I typically recommend talking directly to a person, there is a good chance this type of manager is beyond a one on one, and could probably benefit more from an intervention. This management philosophy is corrosive to a project, team and company and if unchecked can undo years of culture! So please, address it!

Low (Limit Setting Dimension) + High (Emotional Responsiveness Dimension) = Permissive Management

I believe this philosophy is much more common than neglect. I see this when managers or leads are new to their roles, and they're trying to build relationships with the team. Especially if that new manager or lead used to be a peer with the people they're managing. I also see this when managers or leads are simply trying to be friends or care more about what people think of them, as opposed to where the boundaries of responsibilities lie.

If you are this type of manager, and you're looking to raise the bar of expectations I prefer the "rip off the band-aid" approach as opposed to slow rolling new expectations and restrictions over the course of time. A sit down with the team to layout your new expectations, why they're important to the goals of the team as well as individuals, and how you plan to hold everyone accountable should be addressed in this sit down. It will be an adjustment, and it will take time. However, with intentionality and working to hold people accountable, you can go from a permissive management philosophy to a strong one.

High (Limit Setting Dimension) + Low (Emotional Responsiveness Dimension) = Authoritarian Management

This is another trap I see new managers fall into. They chose me, I have the power, you have to listen, I don't care what you have going on or how you feel about what I just said. These are the people that don't understand the importance of influence and the elements of leadership that are required to manage people successfully. Even in the highly hierarchical structure of the US Military, those leads and managers that tend to lean on the authoritarian management style may get the work accomplished, but it's highly unlikely their team is working much beyond the explicitly described orders. The authoritarian management style doesn't allow for emotional or phycological safety of your team, which in turn, limits the willingness of your team to bring their entire self to work.

If you are this type of manager and are willing to self reflect long enough to warrant a climb down off of your ivory tower, there is hope. After numerous personality assessments, I too rank very low in empathy no matter how much I'd like to disagree. I tend to be too focused on getting everyone to complete the objective and not enough on where their mindset is with it all. A couple of ways I'm trying to combat this is to talk less and listen more. I try not to chime in with my thoughts right off the bat, forcing the conversation into the direction I want it. I instead let it flow while encouraging others opinions and approaches. Another way is to listen with the purpose of understanding. When I listened to people in the past, I would put everything they were saying into bullet points in my mind and bucketize them. Listening with the purpose of understanding is like listening more with a highlighter, that allows me to go back to parts of it and asking them to dig in more while I write in the margins. It's a work in progress.

High (Limit Setting Dimension) + High (Emotional Responsiveness Dimension) = Strong Managing Philosphy

This managing Philosphy is not accidental. Every lead or manager that is able to hold their team accountable to high expectations, while at the same time offering empathy and emotional responsivness to their respective place in the world works hard on their managing philosphy. They don't make the easy decision because it will make a problem go away, they make the right decision because it's in line with established expectations. This is the sweet spot of management. Your team doesn't look at you as checked out, soft or as a bully. They know you say what you mean, and mean what you say while at the same time not writing off their emotional response to situations.

This specific managing philosophy has been very difficult to balance during the pandemic with the amount of typically unspoken personal life hurdles that have shown up on the doorsteps of management. It's caused more questions than answers, ethical dilemmas and plenty of guess and check. There are no easy answers as we embrace hybrid work environments. Managers must rely on their managing philosophy when making these decisions, and therefore should ensure it's a strong one!

If I'm going to be honest with myself, I have not stuck to a strong managing philosophy as much as I should have over the years. Even to this day I struggle to hit both dimensions with the intentionality that I should. That's the point though - you never arrive at a managing philosphy, it's a quest. It's a guiding direction. It's not some arbitrary weight loss goal you're trying to reach, it's more of a healthy lifestyle you're trying to maintain. It's an approach to management that if you're lucky enough to engrain in your day to day, allows you to have the makings of being a great manager!

I ask two things this week:

  1. Look over the two dimensions of managing philosophy above, and identify where you are on the scale. Are you too wrapped up in your own agenda that you're falling into the neglect category? Are you trying to be more of a friend than a manager and as a result have left expectations behind and have embraced a permissive management philosophy? Or are you the biggest voice in the room, suppressing ideas, and not embracing phycological safety with your authoritarian style? Be honest with yourself, and look for ways to adjust your dial appropriately. Finding a manager mentor that has the strength you're looking for is a great start.

  2. Does your manager display any of the aforementioned tendencies, and you see first hand the toll it's taking on your team? Please take some time to put a solid case together and bring it to your manager's attention. If you're able to come forward with a plan to improve, that's great on you. If they seem willing to embrace the change, let them know you'll help to hold them accountable. Managing up is a key strength for any aspiring manager. Be tactful, and good luck.

Of course everything is situational, but both the limit setting and emotional responsivness dimensions must be present to have a strong managing philosphy. Management is more than making schedules, giving direction and accomplishing the mission. Being able to show compassion and empathy for life - while still setting and holding tight to expectations are all part of the gig. So, what's your management philosophy?

Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.

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