Decades ago, as a new manager, I wish someone would have taken me aside and confidentially shared a few things with me. Maybe the things I needed to know were not the “politically correct” conversations to have. But it sure would have been nice to know a few things I couldn’t learn in a classroom or book.

Beware of employees who say, “I want my manager to always be honest with me.” 

Sadly, I learned that honesty is typically the last thing they wanted. However, I took them at their word and honestly shared my observations on their work performance and potential advancement skills. The result was that I quickly got the reputation of being a b____. I also learned that often the things I shared with them were very close to what previous managers had told them—for years! Yet, from their perspective, I (and the many managers before me) was wrong.

The reputation I earned as a result followed me for many years and only went away when I relocated to a different position in a different state. The employee rumor mill is strong and active, everywhere. It is always considered correct, giving little room for anyone to give you the benefit of the doubt. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, “You aren’t as bad as everyone says you are,” well . . . I’d be retired now.

So my advice to new managers is that they wait to be “honest” with employees who quickly insist on honesty. Watch, observe, and listen. If you can, wait for at least six months. You will learn a great deal about people by not sharing your thoughts and observations. You will have a good feel for who can handle it and those who can’t. You might consider asking previous managers what their experience was with those same employees. But be cautious: Those managers may have favorites, friends, or family in your department. So again, listen and gather information. Don’t share your thoughts and opinions.

When the appropriate time comes to give an employee your wisdom, be attentive to how the person responds to what you say. Listen to them with your ears and your eyes. If their body language matches the words you hear, that is a good thing.

I now only give people one or two things at a time that need improvement. I also give them the information in quick sound bites and I don’t repeat them more than once. If you repeat yourself too much, they may read into your comments and feel that you are picking on them.

(Of course, this advice does not apply to serious situations that require immediate attention, like harassment claims.)

It may not be on your job description, but be prepared to feel like a babysitter at times.

There are times when you may ask yourself, “Are these really adults?” The answer is “yes” they are if you base adulthood merely on age. But if you consider the whole package, including emotional maturity, then the answer may not be that clear cut. I’ve spent my career both managing people and being managed, and I can look back and see the times I’ve been the immature one in a situation at work. It is quite embarrassing and often I only recognize it when time and distance have separated me from the incident. Sometimes people will respond or act in ways that seem, well, high-schoolish. Expect it so it doesn’t catch you by surprise.

When it happens, don’t take it personally. Don’t look down on people because they have a teenage moment. We all do it. I do it. You do it. Some people are more stealthy in how they do it, and others just let it all hang out there. The thing to remember is that when these moments happen, and you feel more like a babysitter than a manager, never react like a babysitter would. Always react like a manager would. Stay above it, but don’t look down on it.

Some employees are only there to get a paycheck.

This was a hard one for me. I wanted everyone in my department to love working there. I wanted all of them to see the company as I did. I felt my two or three years of experience there qualified me to cheer-lead others to the top. What I didn’t realize is that some people don’t want to “climb the ladder” or see the company be the best in the world or see me succeed. Some just want to put in their 40 hours of work and take home their paycheck so they can do what they love, which is live—not work.

I learned this most from my husband. He is a “I just need a job” kind of person. I’m a “I have to have a career” kind of person. When he’d come home and share about the new “flavor of the month” motivational project his company was “shoving” down their throats, I knew if he worked where I did, I’d be the one holding the shovel. It broke my heart to see how frustrated he was with all the “change” all the time. He just wanted to go in and do his job the best he could. He felt all these programs and newbie managers just clogged up the system and made him miserable.

I began to see my husband’s face on the employees I was managing. I had genuine empathy for them and found myself stuck between a rock and hard place. The rock was the company that wanted me to hold meetings and “pep rallies” for that latest new thing, while the hard place was the employees who wanted to stay at their station and just do the job we were paying them to do. It took a long time for me to figure out a balance of these two conflicting positions.

If you are faced with this, take heart. As you earn respect with your peers, your boss, and your employees, you will learn how to do both. But give yourself permission to do it wrong and make a few mistakes along the way. Because this is one of those things you only learn from experience. You can’t learn it in a book or by reading an article on the topic. The reason for this is that each situation and employee is unique.

Value your employees who just want to do their job, as much as you value employees looking to learn more and be promoted. Both are needed. Find a way for both to feel respected by you.

I have been managing people for over 30 years now. Different companies, different states, different careers. I have managed volunteers, press operators, managers, executives, and everything in between. I’ve worked in for-profit industries and not-for-profit ministries. I have learned that there are times when I hate working with people and times when I love it. I have learned that what people want most is to be heard AND understood. This holds true no matter what position they hold.

Do you want to be an exceptional manager? Then be an exceptional listener.

 

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