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The Holy Grail of Effective People Management

By Andy Hughes

Today, I have for you a great tip that will help you get better at effective people management. Actually it’s not just about people management, it will work for functional responsibility too. So stay tuned and keep reading.

I work with a lot of line managers, both first timers and those with years of experience. You would think that becoming a manager is straightforward huh? Just apply some logic, understand what needs to be done, dish out the work to people and boom, watch the results roll in! Oh if only that were the case! Most of the challenges I have to deal with these days when coaching or doing team development, center around people. Just add people and hey presto, dysfunction, chaos and hostile territory wars! Often these occur in seemingly subtle ways through undertones, but they definitely exist for many line managers.

But all of that is relatively normal. You put a bunch of different personalities in a room, give them stuff to do and boundaries to work in and soon, politicians and tacticians begin to rear their ugly heads. We can’t help it, it’s human nature. What effect does this have on management though?

  Let’s Use An Example

Well, let’s play out an example. You are a member of an operations team and you’ve been cited as one of the top performers. Your boss gets promoted and subsequently promotes you to their old role. Your first order of business is to tell everyone that you haven’t changed and things will be the same; “you’re still one of the team”. In your first few days, people come to you with management challenges and issues. You, wanting to show you can be a great manager, support people. You point them in the right directions, you give them answers to show you know your stuff. You get results quickly. Job done, box ticked!

Now go forward around 6-8 months. You’re now involved in a number of business projects, monthly reviews, budget reporting and performance monitoring. On top of this, people still come and ask for your advice, guidance and answers to questions on issues. And because you’re a great manager, you help them.

The only problem now is that you’re so busy, you don’t have time to do everything you need to do. So you pack some work into your laptop bag and work on it after dinner at home. This starts to become a permanent situation. Now, your frustration grows as you have little time to do all the great things you want to achieve. Your people are not as capable as you need them to be and involve you in too many little things. Effective People Management is pretty much the last thing on your mind.

You’re now progressing nicely towards your level of incompetence! This is the point at which your ability to achieve great things is outweighed by your inability to do effective people management. You’re the victim of your own success.

Before you decide that the above isn’t you. Be aware, that this is like an addict trying to break a habit. You get caught in the hamster wheel, with no way off and you justify things to yourself or deny what’s going on.

Ever seen the definition of a fool; “Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result”. The only way things will change is if you take different actions. So, let’s assume, if you’re still with me at this point, that you want things to change. Let’s move on.

  How to fix things?

I want you to picture your a landscape. At the bottom is the grass, weeds and earth. In the middle are houses, with people, trees stretching into the sky. Then at the top are clouds, blue sky and space! This is a metaphor for your role. At the bottom is all the detail and minutia you need to be involved in. In the middle is the typical planning, maintenance and operational things. At the top is all the visioning, strategy, new ideas that shift performance.

Now imagine another landscape, below yours. At the top is beautiful green grass, flowers and plants. In the middle is earth with lots of tunnels and roots pressing downwards. At the bottom is the hard coalface, where the mining happens and it’s hot, sweaty and tiring. That is the metaphor for your people. At the bottom, it’s the hard graft and at the top is where they get to learn, grow their experience and develop.

What often happens in reality, is that you spend a portion of your time being sucked down through the grass and weeds into aspects of your people’s work. Why? Because it’s easier, quicker and familiar stuff. You may enjoy some aspects of your old work and therefore justify that it’s easy for you to do. You may not think your team are up to your standard and so you do some things yourself. Or maybe you feel you have something to prove so you get very involved in the detail.

It’s No Big Deal

The problems occur when you spend too much time involved in your people’s work activities and arena. Clearly, that’s not effective people management at all. All the time you spend there, robs you of time to do more great things in your own landscape. What falls by the wayside? All the visioning, strategy, performance improvements, the development of the team etc. That blue sky and clouds activity.

So you either take it home, or it doesn’t get done. There are all kinds of knock on effects on stress, pressure etc, which I won’t go into here. But I am interested in the knock on effect, this behaviour has on your team.

You see, they can’t go any lower in their activities or work, because there is no one below them. So what happens in effect, is that the scope of their role reduces down. Your getting involved at the upper part of their landscape means they don’t do it themselves. The knock on is reduced scope, constrained creativity and initiative, limited exposure and stunted developmental growth. The knock on for you is an ever increasing journey towards ineffectiveness and incompetence.

Let’s draw this out to illustrate what I mean.

Your Role – As you can see above; the area between the red lines is your role as contracted by your employer. It’s all the things they expect of you in delivering results and growing your part of the business. This is where you’d be demonstrating effective people management.

Team’s Role – The area between the green lines represent the role of your team in supporting you to do what needs to be done. It’s what you and the company should be expecting of them.

  Now for the interesting bit!

The grey lines represent what you actually end up doing in your role. This is because you get caught up doing things that you shouldn’t need to. There are lots of things that suck you into a position of micro-management, often unintentionally. Things like answering questions for people, responding to emails that a team member should know the answer to, or compiling a report because it’s quicker for you to do it. There’s a whole bunch more, but hopefully you get the jist.

In getting yourself caught up in elements of micro managing, you find you have no time left to make the great improvements you were thinking of. Or to develop the team as you wanted to. Soon, 121s get skipped, work comes home with you and the spiral begins. All the things in the “Unrealised Potential” area, stay just that, unrealised.

At this point, we describe it as “The activity is leading the behaviour”. Your ability now to predict success is reducing exponentially, the longer this behaviour goes on. You need to get back in control of your time. How to do it?

Identify Your Occupational Hobbies

The first step to take towards your effective people management holy grail is to identify those “Occupational Hobbies” (click here to read the article on Occupational Hobbies) that keep you from doing what you should be doing. OH are things that can and should be done by someone else, inside or outside of your team. Be careful here, as there is a tendency to falsely justify these activities as important and necessary. They may be…….just not for us to do. Be ruthless and bold in identify these OH as they are the key to getting your time and control back.

Balance The Load

You and your team are just that, a team. They are each employed to carry out their share of task responsibilities necessary to achieve successful outcomes. This also means, taking their share of the pressures of deadlines, stretching goals and fluctuations in work levels. Your role as manager is not to keep this from them, but more to ensure that they have the knowledge, skills and attitude to contribute the best of themselves. They should be able to understand the pressures of changing priorities, critical deadlines and respond effectively.

What can happen, is that you as the line manage, make things too easy by doing more for people than is right to do. As the OH model shows, if there is a shortcoming in their knowledge or skills, then training or coaching may be required to get them to full capability. If it is an attitude issue, then coaching or setting clearer performance standards may help. What you shouldn’t do, is micro manage or justify that it’s easier and quicker for you to do things. That’s your first foot on the spiral to incompetence. “Easier said than done”, I hear you say! Of course, I never claimed it was easy, but it is the right thing to do and requires practicing something called “Tough Empathy”.

Practicing Tough Empathy

If you have children, nieces, nephews etc, you may have come across this before. It is a key skill for effective people management. If you’re like me, trying to get your children to accept their bed time can be a test of wills. You may first act all nicey nicey, only to discover it makes little difference other than to your stress levels. Then you become daddy dominant! Which also makes little difference, other than to your stress levels. Oh and now you’ve probably made your child cry a few times and given in a few times. All in all, it’s going quite well………not.

At some point hopefully, you will, like me have learned to let the frustration wash over you. You become resolute that bedtime is when it is and nothing is changing it. You put your child down to sleep and when they get up, you put them down again………….and again………..and again. Eventually, your child falls asleep. The next day, same routine and the next and so on. However, at a certain point, you realise your child is no longer getting up as often and bedtimes are getting easier, if only by a little. That’s tough empathy.

Demonstrating tough empathy with employees means letting them know that you recognise the difficulties they may be facing (the empathy bit), but that they still need to do their bit, take on their share of the pressure etc (the tough bit). The trick is to maintain a resolute approach. As soon as someone sees cracks in your approach, they might manipulate it.

Effective People Management Summary

There is a lot more we could go into about what to do when things don’t go according to plan, for example using performance improvement plans. However, I am applying a certain amount of trust in your ability to know some of the steps to take to help you deal with difficult employees. This article is intended more to identify and highlight a common problem for people trying to demonstrate effective people management skills. In my experience, the above diagram is a frequently occurring situation these days. Often, we just do more of the same, hoping it will all come right soon. Only we’re not taking the action to make us better at effective people management. We’re simply hanging on whilst the pressure and stress dictates our behaviour and robs us of time.

Any questions you may have about the “Effective People Management” article, or your own personal situation, please get in touch. You can use the contact form on our main website. Or any other of our contact details.

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