Skills for managers: how to find your middle ground

Management is a lifelong journey: you try to better yourself so you’re more effective tomorrow than today.

Part of this journey is recognising your natural tendencies to act ineffectively.

On one side, you’ve got managers who end up being “ruinously empathetic.” On the other, managers who are “obnoxiously aggressive.”

Smack bang between the two lie the most effective managers, with most managers leaning towards one side or the other.

How can you move further towards the middle and attain the skills to become a better manager?

Never forget you’re an adult in the workplace. And you’re talking to other adults. Great managers always act – and expect others to act – like adults.

Transactional analysis helps us understand what ‘state’ we’re in when we talk to others: parent, child or adult.

Aggressive managers or overly-empathetic ones often adopt the role of the parent.

The former tend to be the authoritarian parent, the latter the highly permissive parent. 

Managers should talk to everyone like an adult and expect them to respond as an adult. 

If they don’t, your job is not to act like a parent (scold them) or like a child (impulsive and reactive) but to continue to talk to them like an adult.

It’s a lot easier to have honest, open conversations when you remind yourself to act the adult and treat people like adults. Managers should take the lead, always reverting to the adult state.

Helping people understand transactional analysis makes it easier for them to realise what state they tend to go into at work.

We’re all human and it’s very easy to forget that it takes effort to communicate like an adult.

You have a duty of care to the business. And to your people. You need to respect both and keep them in balance.

“Obnoxiously aggressive” managers tend to prioritise the organisation’s needs over the individual.

“Ruinously empathetic” managers tend to do the opposite.

But organisations are complex systems that need balancing. Everyone’s needs must be considered.

The organisation doesn’t get what it needs if people don’t get what they need.

Always remember you’re employed to take care of both sides and find outcomes that work for everyone.

It’s not about you and the organisation against the people. Or you and your people against the organisation.

It’s about compromising and finding workable solutions.

“Lean in” when the going gets tough. Difficult conversations are much easier to have when you’re not putting up emotional barriers.

When we need to have difficult conversations at work or provide critical feedback, it’s easy to get defensive.

But you need to remember difficult conversations are part and parcel of a manager’s job. Fight against the natural tendency to put up emotional barriers.

These barriers present in different ways. 

You may smile too much to show you’re not a threat. You may get angry to hide your fear of difficult conversations. You may decide to tackle the issue over email rather than face-to-face (rarely a good idea).

The solution: “lean in” towards your team when you need to have harder conversations.

This means moving forwards both physically (don’t sit back with your arms folded) and emotionally (be open-minded and ready to have an adult-to-adult conversation).

People may initially react poorly but realise you’re acting for the right reasons. This is often how people feel after a difficult conversation with their manager.

Be yourself at work. If you mirror people too much, you end up finding it hard to push back when you need to.

Managers with a tendency to be overly-empathetic often want to make people feel at ease.

This leads them to mirror the other person’s style. The way they speak. The things they say.

This builds a relationship but boundaries can become blurred, making it harder to have an adult-to-adult professional relationship

Be yourself at work. Be friendly and attentive. Be a warm and positive presence. But don’t bend too much to be like others. Act yourself and allow others to do the same.

Mutual respect doesn’t require everyone to be identical – it requires people to act like adults and understand that we can all be different but still work well together.

Fair and reasonable is a subjective point of view. You can’t please everyone. But good managers are always able to justify your position.

Managing people is about treating people as individuals – but also being fair and reasonable to everyone.

What managers count as fair and reasonable may not feel fair and reasonable to the individual.

When the individual says this, you need to be able to justify your decisions. And give the same justification to anyone, whoever they be.

And sometimes, despite being fair and reasonable, you won’t get the outcome you’re looking for.

Being able to recognise when this happens is really important. It will stop you correcting your behaviour when it doesn’t need correcting.

Always believe in your approach. Others can doubt you at times, but you must maintain belief in your managerial approach.

And make sure your belief is loosely held. You should always be open to doing things a better way.

Looking to be a better manager? Take a look at the five most effective and important skills for managers today.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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