One of the things that define a manager for me is his style of management. I’ve been experimenting with management style since I started being in charge of things. I am a gentle and timid guy, so that’s naturally how I started. And because it’s part of my nature, I probably won’t ever fundamentally change. But within your nature, it is definitely possible to make some adjustments on how you do things.
The thing is that being friendly doesn’t always gets results. Just think about that ruthless, nasty manager that always got things done (I’m sure someone pops into your mind right now), and the gentle guy or girl who worked very hard and got fired or marginalized in the end. In the world we live, it seems that it somehow pays to be an asshole, to go head-first into arguments and go through your career kicking and screaming, usually at others.
Now to call all these people ‘assholes’ is not completely fair. They often simply have a skill that many others lack, which is the ability to confront others. For many, this is a very difficult skill to master.
One of the reasons is that empathy tends to get in the way. A person who doesn’t feel (as much) empathy, however, has no such problems, and will happily charge through life unhindered by the negative effects of conflict. And they’ll get things done. Worse yet, they’ll even get a steady following of people, people who want to avoid conflict so much they prefer to follow and say yes whenever called upon, just to get out of the firing line. For an outsider, it seems obvious; be confrontational, disregard others and get things done.
So I saw that example and tried it myself. It’s pretty hard at first to repress my natural, conflict-avoidance instincts and to confront people right and left, to tell them why you’re not happy with them or their actions, and not be scared of the arguments that might follow. It gets much easier with practice though, and before you know it, it hardly feels like an effort at all. What lingers, however, is that I felt bad afterward. It kept me awake at night plenty of times.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that I’ve learned this skill, or I wouldn’t have been able to achieve a huge number of things that I managed to do. It’s also an important skill to master because regardless of your own actions, you will probably end up in a conflict at some point. But I made a mistake. I followed the example of the asshole. I’ve entered into arguments and acted like an asshole because I thought that was the skill I was picking up, and that it was part of the bargain.
After reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (which has a very manipulative title but is really a very nice book) however, I figured out that there’s another way. Carnegie advocates a strongly positive attitude to get things done. The whole book is written with the idea that you can get things done and influence people without conflict. In fact, it advocates strongly against having arguments with others. A direct quote:
I have listened to, engaged in, and watched the effect of thousands of arguments. As a result of all this, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument — and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.
And he has a point; too many arguments are about finding out who’s right, instead of what’s right. My gut already knew this, but I misinterpreted this feeling for simple conflict avoidance, and perhaps even weakness. However, avoiding an argument just means avoiding wasting your time.
One of the big points Carnegie makes is that we are so preoccupied with what we want, and how much we want others to do this thing for us, that we forget to consider why another person would even want to do anything for us. That’s actually where many conflicts come from. You want something while the other person doesn’t, so you get angry and fight and hope that helps, and get frustrated (and even angrier) when it doesn’t. Why can’t they just understand you, and do what you want? The hypocrisy is almost tangible, yet we all start out acting this way.
If you however do take the effort to consider why they would want to help you, give them what they need, and thank and praise them when they act in the way you want them to, you get people to actually want to do what you want. Better yet, they will do it with much more energy and effort than if you would have ordered them to do it, or fought them about it. That does mean that you have to make compromises sometimes, but is what you want really so much more important than what they want?
So I changed a number of things in my approach. For starters, instead of spending my time thinking of what I want to get done and how to get there, I now spend most of my time thinking of the people involved and what they want. Do I know of a reason for them to want to do what I want them to do? If not, how can I find out? If I know a reason, what is it and can I give it to them, or will pointing the benefit out be enough? If not, is there something else I can give them? Or does what I want actually not make sense at all from their point of view, so then why do I want it? And how can I change what I want to be in line with those involved?
Another thing that I changed is that I try to talk about things in terms relevant to the other person. Instead of asking someone to do something, I explain the situation, make clear what I’m looking for, and tell them what I think they want or would find important with regards to the situation. Sometimes they spontaneously come up with exactly what I would like them to do by themselves, which is a perfect example of collaboration, and it makes me all giddy inside. In the other cases, they are much more receptive to my request, as I’ve already shown that I considered them before even coming over. And, as I’ve done before but do even more now, I thank them profusely when they agree to help me out.
Finally, I focus much more on finding and pointing out what goes right, instead of worrying about dealing with what goes wrong. I actually berate myself for missing any opportunity to inject a dose of positiveness into a moment that deserves it. Things that go wrong I point out as well when it is needed, but I make an active effort to try to phrase it in such a way that the person(s) involved can leave with their head held high, and a want to not repeat the mistake. It’s not easy, but it is quite rewarding. And it’s more fun, as it becomes a challenge in creativity instead of simply one of will.
All of this has been a big change for me. Enacting change with a positive attitude instead of dreading to lay down the hammer of negative feedback and conflicts has been working wonders, both for my own state of mind and for the results I’m getting. It also rubs off on others slowly but surely, and consequently, the atmosphere of the whole team slowly changes, simply by constantly injecting healthy doses of positivity and praise.
Being positive and collaborative is a powerful thing, much more so than I thought, and constant positive reinforcement creates healthy feedback loops. It has convinced me that there’s no need to be an asshole to get things done, and I’m confident that this is, in fact, the only way to be a manager that lets people grow.