Posted On: Thursday, 05 December 2019 by Rajiv Popat

Empathy is the foundational building block for good leadership. It makes you tolerable and worthy of forgiveness as a manager. It's a foundational building block for all relationships that you are going to form in your workplace. Steve Yegge's timeless blog post of empathy is my go-to post to read every time I find myself starting to act like a jerk.

But even as a person with empathy, you will make mistakes. These mistakes will often effect your team and make you feel like a jerk.

Time and again, a lot of managers (me included) make these same rookie mistakes. I have seen development teams suffer because of these mistakes and bad management styles. I truly believe most managers don’t have malicious intent and can fix these mistakes really easy by exercising a little bit of mindfulness.

This series of posts is my attempt to document these mistakes and try and spread some mindfulness for managers. I post them as commandments because we are wired to remember commandments and they sound just a little more serious that way.

For today's post let's start with the first mistake most managers make:

Thou Shalt Not Tell Us What We Need to Look at.

Ever worked with a manager who calls the entire team in a meeting room, points out a bunch of open items, says  "we need to start looking at this" and then ends the meeting?


Then weeks after that meeting he calls you and gets really angry that "this" was not done?

There are multiple problems with this "we need to look at this" style of management. Here are few fundamental issues with this style of management:

#1: You never told us who amongst the team needs to look at "this".
As a manager when you aren't specific about who in your team needs to own a problem and pick it up to solve it, two things can happen:

  1. No one picks it up (and you are actually lucky if this happens) or:
  2. More than one over-ambitious pricks in the team pick it up and then step on each other’s foot all the time and get into stupid arguments because both of them have assumed ownership of the problem.

The first rule of delegation is you need to be crystal clear who you are delegating to. The second rule is you never delegate one thing to more than one person. The "we need to look at this" style of management violates both these rules of delegation.

#2: You never created any agreement on what will be done and by when.

The bigger problem with this style of management is that you never told me exactly what I need to do and by when I need to do it. "We need to look at this" doesn't mean anything. Maybe I just looked at it, realized it was bad but then I was busy, so I decided I will fix it next year.

If you want me to act, be specific about what you want me to do and by when you want me to do it. Till the time you do that you have no right to expect anything to get done and absolutely no right to ask for status.

#3: You are not paid to have visions.

The "we need to start looking at" school of managers believe that they are visionaries. Newsflash! As a manager, your job is not to have visions. It is to crystallize visions your leadership or your customers have into actionable items and enable your teams to materialize those visions.

True, every once in a while you are free to have a great idea or vision but that is not your primary job function. When you are managing a team just giving them a vision and hoping they will do the management required to materialize that vision into action is not what a manager is paid to do. A manager is supposed to manage the execution of that vision.

When you are managing a team of programmers  it's easy to see yourself in some sort of high-end leadership role where you have all the great ideas and then delegate the actual boring clerical management aspects of the execution of those ideas to the team, but that doesn't make you a great manager; it just makes you a slacker who is not doing his job.

#4: Your Job Is Helping People Stay Productive (Not confuse them).

Organizing tasks and helping people stay productive is your primary job function. Having visions and ideas is a soft skill that is nice to have. If you don't like the clerical and meticulous aspects associated with management, maybe you may want to consider taking up a specific directorial role or maybe even start your own company with your own visions. But as a manager, you are as good as your ability to give clear precise executable tasks to your team members, get impediments out of their way and keep them productive and in the flow.

Unless you are a director or the CEO of a company, the "we need to look at this" style of management is a recipe for long term disaster.

One example from the Steve Jobs book comes to mind here.

Even as CEO Steve Jobs was crystal clear about having a specific rounded edge in the windows and dialog boxes on his operating system and he made is crystal clear who would work on it and by when he wanted it.

As a CEO he could have just said, "we need to start looking at making an OS like the one we saw at xerox", packed his bag and gone home. But instead, he chose to drill down into the specifics of how his dialog boxes of that operating system would look, what the size of the mouse would be and a million other nitty-gritties. He wasn't micromanaging. He was giving direction by breaking vision into tasks and then giving people autonomy to execute the tasks.

Even if you are the CEO of your own company, you specifically need two aspects in personality, one is seeing the vision and the other that is breaking it into clear executable work items and assigning those work items to the right individuals or teams who are competent and enjoy executing them.

If you are a director, a vice president or a CEO, you might be able to get away with "we need to look at this” style of management if you have hired kickass managers who can translate that vision into an executable plan but if you are a manager or directly working with programmers, and you are expecting your team do the entire execution of your vision themselves, both you and your team are going to be disappointed, hurt and struggling to get anything done in the long term.

Always remember, when you are managing a team and you want something done, never ask your team to just "look at" something. Tell them what needs to be done, tell them who needs to do it and tell them when it needs to be done. Anything short of that is just is bad management. Anything more than that, for example, controlling how they do it, is micromanagement. Right between that bad management and micromanagement is a thin line where really effective management happens. Your job as a manager is to walk that rope.

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