People Are Not Robots

People are doing the best they can with what they have.  I have mentioned that in some of my older posts and it’s something I live by.  I believe in the good in people and that people in general are not malicious.  I have used this argument with many-a-manager that I’ve worked with either as a full time employee or consultant, usually in vain.

I remember working with a team in a company that had agreed to do their morning standup at 9.30am.  Quickly afterwards a pattern had developed where a couple of team members would be a few minutes late, then they would arrive later and later to the point where some team members would start criticizing the late team members.  “Why can’t he just be on time?  We said we would have the standup at 9.30, what’s wrong with him?

There could be a number of factors contributing to why these couple of team members were late, so what can you, as a manager, do about this?

People are doing the best they can with what they have.  Life is complex, people have families, doctor’s appointments and other commitments outside of work.  In the case of the late team members, a better approach than forcing them to “be on time” is to understand the reasons behind the lateness.  Do they go to the gym in the morning?  Do they drop their kids off at daycare? In my case, I’m an introvert so I need a lot of sleep and getting up early can be really hard for me sometimes.  I’ll do my best to get into work early sometimes but my pattern is that I show up anywhere between 8am and 9.30am.

Usually what I’ve experienced is things like “how can we enforce people coming in on time?”  “how can we punish these people for being late?”

I will admit I have done this and am kicking myself for doing it.   Many years ago when I was younger and more stupid, I instituted a policy around being late for the standup.  I said anyone who is late must pay a fine because the team was annoyed that some people were constantly late.  The first day I was purposely late and paid the fine to show I wasn’t exempt from the policy.  What a dumb idea.  Seriously, what a dumb idea, but I didn’t know any better at the time.

So the lesson is, understand the reasons behind why an employee is behaving a certain way and work with them to help them improve on it instead of punishing or trying to force a certain behaviour.    People are different and respond to feedback differently.  I respond well to direct feedback, no matter how brutal.  I don’t always like it, but I prefer it.  Some people may respond negatively to that type of feedback.  Understand your co-workers and understand people aren’t malicious.  Think of it this way, do you go to work with the intent of doing something harmful or pissing off your co-workers?

Ok, that’s one problem addressed, what about the reaction of managers?  That’s a problem too.  Managers who punish employees with the stick do so because that’s what they know.  They too are behaving like that for numerous reasons.  They could have had a bad manager in the past, they might not even want to be a manager and don’t know how to become one.  I remember being given my first “Director” title when I was 29.  How stupid is that?  I had one year of management experience at the time.  It sounded cool and it looks good on my resume but I was in no way ready for the responsibility of that job.  I didn’t know any better at the time but I did have a fantastic manager who helped me understand what being a good manager was.

My actions throughout that role were the best I could do with what I had at the time.  That included experience and training.  I did a lot of stupid things back then and was a real pain in the ass to work with.  I didn’t know what else to do.  From my experience most people become managers because they are the ‘expert’ in their field.  Then these managers end up doing most of the work instead of managing the team.  I’ve been there too.

So as a manager, what can you do?  You’re not a bad person, you’re doing the best you can with what you have.  If you don’t know how to be a great manager, get training.  Read books.  Go to conferences and talk to other managers.  Tell your boss you don’t want to be a manager yet.  There’s no shortage of what you can do to improve yourself.  Remember, there are systemic forces on you too.  If you are getting pressure from your boss to deliver results, that pressure will get pushed onto the team.

Remember, people are doing the best they can with what they have, as a manager you have a responsibility to understand the people you manage and you have a responsibility to develop your management skills.  No one else, including your company, are responsible for your skills.  It’s great if your company will help but at the end of the day greatness comes from inside you and you have much more control over that than you may think.