Setting Up Your Team for Success - Part 2

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Everyone's different

John Schrag - 10 January 2024

In the first part of this article, I talked about the relationship between a manager and their team as a whole.  In this second part, I want to talk about the relationship between a manager and their individual employees.  What do your individual team members need from you to be successful?

One common theme that came up when  I asked forty experienced people managers what they wished they had known when they first started managing was their initial surprise at just how different people on a team can be from one another.

“I think that was probably the biggest moment for me – realizing that not everyone was like me.”


“I was less aware of the range of different personas that are out there, and having experience with how to handle different people. That has been a learning experience – how to interact with different people.”


“I think being a manager is all about finding the thing that really engages a person and gets them excited and keeps them engaged, challenged and interested in the job.”


It’s not just the obvious externally visible differences – people have different values, motivations, needs and preferences, and it’s up to you to figure those out so that you can figure out the best way to work with them and help them flourish.


For example, some people are motivated by competition, whereas others might be motivated instead by an interesting problem to solve, or by the opportunity to help others, or by being part of a collaborative team effort.  Some are only motivated by money or prizes.  If you try to motivate everyone in the way that works for you, you might find that you’ve disengaged a good chunk of your team.


Some people love to be praised in front of the whole team, whereas others find that excruciatingly embarrassing.  Some people like to keep their home life private whereas others want to share it.  Everyone has their own reason for being at their job, and some of those reasons might surprise you.  I remember having two excellent peers – one was striving to be promoted to VP, and the other was actively avoiding such a promotion.  People are very different.


So how are you supposed to figure all of this out?  The first and maybe most important skill you will need as a people manager is the ability to listen.


A Good Ear

“A lot of what you can do to make yourself good in [a management] role is just listening to the people who report to you… they'll tell you what they need.”


When you see managers depicted in media, do you ever see them listening?  No.  You see them talking.  Or shouting.  But active listening is a key managerial skill.  It’s how you learn about your individual team members, and what they need from you to thrive – assuming you’ve created an environment of psychological safety in your team.


One-on-one meetings are a great opportunity to listen.  There are many ways to structure them, but I think it’s a good idea to let your staff member own the agenda.  (And try not to cancel the meetings – constantly cancelling one-on-one meetings communicates that you actually don’t care what your staff has to say, and if they start to believe that, they will stop telling you important things.)


It can be helpful to ask open questions in your one-on-ones, because your staff will often assume that you are aware of things that you are not.  If you limit conversation to the status of their deliverables, they might not tell you about big red flags happening on another project, or problems with their own personal situation that may impact their work.  Some questions I’ve found helpful include:


·      How are things going for you this week?

·      How are you finding your current workload?  Have you got too much on your plate?

·      What’s keeping you up at night, if anything?

·      Is there anything you think I need to know about or pay more attention to?

·      What can I do for you this week that will help you out?


Opportunities for growth


“You need to align [their work] to their strengths, their weaknesses, their goals and ambitions.  You know, align towards that value, right? So how do you not just leverage people who are good at the thing, but also provide opportunity and encouragement and pathways for growth for everyone else on the team as well?”


“Growth” at work means more than just getting promotions and making more money.  It’s about acquiring the skills and experience you need to improve your choices and your opportunities at work.  If you’ve been having regular career conversations with your staff, and you’ve been listening (see above), then you should have a good idea of the kinds of growth each person is looking for.  


As a manager, you are in a key position to help your staff obtain those skills and experience  when the opportunity arises.  Maybe there is a chance for someone on your staff to work with another team, or a leadership opportunity (say, supervising an intern or leading a one-off project).  There might be an upcoming training or conference you could send someone to.  These kinds of experiences keep the work interesting and challenging, add to your team’s overall capacity, and show your staff feel that you are investing in them. 


Representation Upwards


Good managers take pride in touting the accomplishments of their staff to their own peers and bosses.  (Bad managers, in contrast, take the credit for their team’s work.)


As a people manager, one of your functions is to grow and promote new leadership, by providing your staff with the training, experiences and opportunities needed for their growth (see above).  But the great work of your staff is unlikely to be noticed by other decision-makers at the company unless you point it out.  It’s up to you to make the accomplishments of your team and its members visible at higher levels of management.  Always be ready to talk about how your team and the people on it are actively contributing to the success of the company.  Not just what they are delivering, but the impact it is having on the company’s success.


Later, when you try to make the case for promoting someone on your staff, you’ll get farther if your peers have been aware for months of that person’s stand-out performance and accomplishments.


A Sense of Belonging


According to Timothy R. Clark, Belonging is the first stage of psychological safety on a team.  That happens when each team member feels that they are a valued member of that team.  That sense of belonging can be harder to achieve for people who are different in some way from the majority.  If you have a staff member who is the only woman on your team, or the only person of colour, or the only LGBTQ person, or the only religious person, or the only autistic person, or just someone with an off-beat sense of humour or personal style, they might feel pressures to mask aspects of themself for fear of not belonging.  People mask for good reasons, but masking can take a personal toll, and impact team performance.


When someone is reveals or raises their differences in a meeting, your response will set an example for everyone on the team.  Ignoring it is almost as bad as mocking it.  The right response is honest curiosity.  It takes bravery to unmask, so when someone does so they probably have a good reason, and it’s time to work those listening skills.


The Right Kind of Management for the Current Situation

 “…Understanding that what one person needs in a moment [may be different than] what that same person may need for a different task. I think that was probably the biggest management epiphany I've had in in my career.”

Even after you’ve figured out how to motivate each individual staff member, and you understand their values and preferences, you’re not done.  The "right" management style for each person can change, depending on their current situation and context.


Someone who is new to a particular task may temporarily need explicit step-by-step direction, even if they are very senior in other areas of their work.  A person with more experience with that task may just need coaching, or no guidance at all beyond goal-setting.  If you pick the wrong management style, you might leave beginners floundering without knowing what to do, or irritate and insult experts as you micromanage their every move.


This approach to management is commonly called Situational Leadership, a term popularized by the behavioural scientist Paul Hersey in the 1970s, based on his earlier work.  He founded the Center for Leadership Studies, which provides training in this.  Even if you don’t have the opportunity to take the training, be aware and don’t be afraid to ask your staff members “how hands-on do you want me to be?” if you’re not sure.


Recognition for the “in-between” people


“Promote the ones that are not often promoted.”


On most teams there are one or more people who end up doing the “in-between” work – all the background labour that allows a team to run smoothly.  Improving processes and tools, establishing relationships, supporting those who need it, and other unglamourous work.  These people are often disregarded at evaluation time, because there is no single accomplishment they can point to and say “I did that”.


But the skills those peoples have – the ability to understand the team’s work holistically, to figure out what needs to be done, and to execute on the work that makes the machine run smoothly – those are the skills you should be looking for when you need to promote someone to management.


Find ways to recognize and reward in-between work on your team.  It will help drive engagement among the people doing it, communicate to everyone else that it is valued by the company, and help make your in-between people visible at the level of your peers.


Your time and attention


“I had an employee who once said to me, ‘You know, I kind of wish that we were doing a crappier job – then we could get a lot of attention and have tiger teams and order pizza. Instead we just come in every day and do our job and ship high quality software on time.’ And I thought, ouch, but that is so true. I'm spending all my time and all my energy on the problem people and not on the high performers.”


It's very easy to just assume that the high performers don’t need your attention.  They are already doing a great job, so why bother them?  


But not spending time with your high performers (including in-between people!) is a lost opportunity. Supporting them will likely give you a bigger return on the investment of your time.  It will also help to set a performance standard for the whole team, and keep your high performers engaged.


The manager’s garden


I think gardening is a good metaphor for managing people.  You may love all your plants equally, but to make them flourish you must be aware of their differences.  Each kind of plant needs its own unique feeding, moisture and sunlight levels if you want them all to flourish.  You need to pay attention to the things that connect them – the soil and irrigation and pollinating insects – as well as the plants themselves.  And that means you have to know your plants.


Do you know your staff?  Do you know their career goals and their values and what motivates them?  If not, you have some fascinating conversations ahead of you.  I advise you to walk softly, and to listen more than talk.  If this is not a strength for you, I can recommend Rob Volpe's excellent book Tell Me More About That to help build your listening/empathy skills.

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John Schrag is a former software engineer, user experience designer, UX executive, facilitator, trainer and coach, now retired.  He writes about building healthy teams, psychological safety, and workplace culture.

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