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#79 Trust Your Experiences

by Steven Cerri on January 12, 2009

“How do you recognize good management advice?”

Hello everyone!

“Who do you trust and what is the truth in management?”

This last week I was reading some of the blogs on the people skills necessary for successful management. One blog, in particular, caught my eye. It had to do with “behaviors” that are necessary for a good manager.

Some of the behaviors put forth by the author included things like these soft skills:

1. When you are managing, never show your emotions.

2. When you are managing, never raise your voice. Always have a calm voice. If you get frustrated you can scream into a pillow in your office.

3. Always have a smile on your face.

4. Walk around and talk to your direct reports. Ask them how they are doing and give them suggestions on how they can do their job better.

These were just a few of the “best practices” that this author put forward regarding how to behave if you want to be a good manager. The author had been a manager for five years and wanted to share what he had learned.

Fair enough.

What I find interesting is this; “How is a new manager who is reading this information, to use and apply these suggestions and to know which suggestions are true and which are false?”

But wait… the truth!

How do you know that the information put forth is accurate? Is there any way that you might know if 5 years as manager is enough to give authoritative knowledge? Is the equivalent of two years of engineering school enough to allow someone to sign off on the design of a bridge or analyze the orbital velocity requirements for rendezvous with the International Space Station?

Actually there is a way to know.

In our own personal experience we know what works for management and what doesn’t. In our own personal experience we have a sense of what good managers do and what bad managers do or don’t do.

And yet, many, many people choose to discount their own personal experience in order to follow the “leader”. They discount what they know in their gut to be true, because the “leader” says that something else is true, instead. And yet, we know it’s not.

So lets take some of those “gems” put forth on the blog post and see if they align with our personal experience.

When you are managing, never show your emotions.

My experience: Not true.

It’s not a question of showing emotions, its a question of what emotions you do show and the degree to which you do so. It’s not very useful to be a tyrant and yell at people and insult them in public. But it’s certainly useful to show compassion, and determination, and even sternness, and maybe levity, politeness, and at times frustration, disappointment, and even anger. It’s impossible to not show emotions. The key is to show the right ones and at the appropriate level. (I could write a book on this.)

When you are managing, never raise your voice. Always have a calm voice. If you get frustrated you can scream into a pillow in your office.

My experience: Half true, half not true.

Never raise your voice… well it depends. I have had direct reports with whom I would never raise my voice. And I’ve had direct reports with whom a good, hearty, give-and-take, with raised voices and even yelling was the only way to build the rapport and connection that the direct report (and I for that matter) wanted. To be always calm with this direct report would have actually adversely affected our professional relationship.

And the idea of always having a calm voice… come on. Have you ever been really upset and in need of help? So you called a customer service representative and the person at the other end of the line sounded as if they were as calm as could be. What was your response?

I know that my response has been to be annoyed with them. They were too calm. They didn’t understand that my situation was important.

Always being calm is nearly as bad as always yelling, almost.

And yes, if you are going to go off on someone… go scream into a pillow until you calm down.

Always have smile on your face.

My experience: Not true.

First, have you ever been around someone who always has a smile on their face? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What are they doing… always with a smile on their face. It can’t be real.” And often it’s not real.

No one wants to be around a doom and gloom person (except other doom and gloom people) but it’s important to be authentic and yet appropriate.

So rules like “always have a smile on your face” are just not useful. A better suggestion is to always be appropriate and effective in any given situation so that you and the team can achieve your/their desired outcome. (This is a topic for another book).

Now the important point about my comments is this; the suggestions put in the blog I read were a decent attempt to quantify behaviors that would make a manager a good manager.

However, management is not a simple process. It is not given to quick and simple rules. In engineering, F=ma. The laws of physics are clear, stable, repeatable. Unfortunately or fortunately, management doesn’t have similarly clear, stable, repeatable rules. The biggest rule in management is “it depends.” The best way to know if what someone is telling you is true, is to match it to your experience. And if you have no experience in a specific are, then take it “one-step-at-a-time”.

With respect to every suggested soft skill behavior I listed from the blog, we all have personal experiences that contradict what was suggested.

We all know of times when emotion displayed by our managers was just what we wanted to see, hear, and experience. Therefore, when to display what emotion is context dependent. It depends.

We all have experiences when we didn’t want our managers to display a smile. We want to be able to “read” our managers by hearing the tone of their voice. We don’t want them to be smiling when they are laying people off. Once again, it depends.

And, there are times when we certainly don’t want our managers to come around talking to us, looking over our shoulders and giving us suggestions about how we can do things better. There are times when we will welcome the advice and other times when we’ll probably consider it micromanagement. So once again it depends.

The bottom line is…

So the bottom line is this. Management, leadership, even contributing your maximum to your organization is not something you learn in five years of on-the-job training. (How long was the intense training your received for your engineering degree?)

It’s also not something you learn from a simple set of rules.

In basic terms…

Engineering is about knowledge; Management is about judgment.

Engineering is about rules; Management is about context.

Engineering is an application of knowledge in search of certainty; Management is the application of judgment in search of an outcome.

Very different worlds.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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