3 things great managers tell their teams

As a manager, you’re on a stage – meaning that your staff members pay a lot of attention to what you say and do. Your words will carry an enormous amount of weight with team members and what you say matters enormously, probably more than you realize.

Here are three things that great managers say to their teams – and which will probably help you get better results from yours.

1. “Let’s test your idea.” Some ideas are so obviously great that it’s a no-brainer to move forward with them. But others are murkier – they might have strong elements, but you might also see some significant challenges with them. Those challenges might make you want to simply say no – but part of the value of having a team is that you have multiple brains and perspectives at work. If you always shut down ideas that don’t 100% resonate with you, you’re probably losing some of the power of having all those different minds at work.

Instead, look for opportunities to say “sure, let’s test it.” Of course, note that this isn’t the same thing as saying “yes, let’s make this a major priority and shift large amounts of money to it.” Rather, this is finding relatively low-stakes ways to test ideas and see how they do. If you’re like most managers, you’ll probably find yourself surprised that at least some ideas that you weren’t enamored of actually turn into successes when people are allowed to experiment. And if they don’t, you’ll have shown your team that you’re willing to give them some space to try things and learn from them, which is exactly the sort of environment that generates fresh thinking and innovation.

2. “What aren’t you getting done?” Managers often spend a lot of time talking about projects that are happening, but often don’t think to check into what’s not happening. But on a busy team where people are pulled in many directions, chances are high that something might be getting pushed to the back burner – and you want to know what those things are. This conversation gives you the chance to say, “Actually, X is more important than Y, so let’s push Y back instead / bring in additional help / delegate X to someone else / think about whether we need to do X at all.”

Of course, in asking this, you need to make it clear that it’s not a “gotcha” – your tone needs to be “I understand how busy you are and that you probably can’t get to everything,” not “You might be in trouble if you answer this truthfully.”

3. “What do you think?” Managers are often too quick to make decisions or give direction in areas where their staff members are perfectly well-equipped to decide how to proceed. Sometimes this is because managers are used to giving guidance that it becomes almost an auto-pilot response: someone brings you a problem, you suggest a solution. But if you make yourself pause and instead ask, “What do you think?” before you suggest a path to try, you might find that your staff person comes up with a good solution on her own – and possibly even a better one.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. MAB*

    I try and do all three of those things daily. I recently got a new team that had a manager who didn’t trust them to do their jobs. Needless to say I get surprised looks when I ask my employees “what is your idea on this?” or “great I like that idea lets do it.” I can’t fathom how the team functioned without that trust in his team. They are quite good at what they do. Hopefully my team will grow into their responsibilities and independence.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    Alison, can you please introduce me to the guy in the pink shirt in the stock photo? I’ll be sure to invite you and all of the commenters to our wedding!

    1. Jack*

      He’s listening so intently, too! I bet he’s like the office version of Feminist Ryan Gosling.

      1. HeyNonnyNonny*

        Now I’m brainstorming meme-y things he’d be saying, like “Girl, I totally believe in equal pay for equal work” or “Girl, it’s such a bummer that we don’t have more comfortable chairs in the lactation room.”

        1. the gold digger*

          Girl, I am building four times as many stalls in the ladies as in the men’s room because we will not have true equality until everyone pees in the same amount of time.

      1. Bowserkitty*

        Same…I didn’t pay it much attention until it was pointed out. Had a nice “helloooooo nurse” moment.

        Because I am 11.

    2. Development Professional*

      I….. must be really excited about getting married this summer, because I didn’t even notice that guy until you all pointed him out! Jeez!

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Oh c’mon. I find plenty of different people appealing. Sure, photo guy is hot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find other types attractive. I also have the hots for John Oliver, who isn’t exactly leading-man material. And I had a weird crush on Frank Perdue when he was alive. I assume many hetero men are the same way.

    3. Kvaren*

      Short Hair Lady is so attracted to him that her mind has basically shut down. She has no idea what any of the people in that photo are effing saying right now.

    4. Adam*

      I may have to save this thread for the next time I need a laugh because I am rolling right now.

  3. Guava*

    #2 – Yeah! It’s a nice way to touch base too.

    It always seems like managers ask this question too late. The person or team is already drowning when the manager bothers to ask this.

      1. NJ Anon*

        This is a problem for some staff. I tell them it’s ok to say no to new projects and to let me know when they need assistance. It is not a sign of weakness and I would rather know now then later.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Ha, so true. My managers asked me this when I was still pretty new and had a mini meltdown one day. They hadn’t realized that their managers were asking me to do a bunch of stuff too. They shut that down real quick and now the uppers go through them first if they need something.

    2. Fish Microwaver*

      Doesn’t happen to me at work. I can be absolutely swamped and I get more assignment. The weak drama llamas get the weight taken of their backs though.

  4. Not an IT Guy*

    #3 – This is a great thing to say…as long as you don’t have a history of constantly disregarding your employees. You can’t expect someone to contribute if all you say to them are things like “keep your mouth shut” and “know your place”.

    1. fposte*

      Though managers who only say “keep your mouth shut” and “know your place” seem unlikely to regularly ask “what do you think?”

      1. Windchime*

        Managers where I work have managed to find that sweet spot between “your idea is incredibly stupid” and “why don’t you ever offer up any ideas”. Sometimes in the same meeting.

        1. starsaphire*

          Oooo, I’ve been in that meeting. The CEO kept saying, “Anyone have any questions?” and as soon as someone asked one, he’d shoot them down with the snarkiest reply in the most mocking voice possible, then ask again for more questions.

          It was not fun. We all figured out by Question 3 that he did not, in fact, want questions, at all.

  5. Mockingjay*

    #3: I wish our team leads on nightmare project would be more open to asking staff for solutions. Right now our project has several large bottlenecks, and the managers and team leads are going in circles trying to fix them. Several of us have seen similar issues on previous projects, and tried to proffer solutions – things that actually succeeded. These fixes would give them 95% of what they want, plus simplify our IT infrastructure by expanding an existing system rather than build a new one. Nope. The Powers That Be have their minds fixated on building a brand new database. It’s been three years in the making and has failed three launches.

    We’ve stopped offering.

  6. Stranger than fiction*

    #1 is like my dream. We so seldom get asked for ideas and the rare opportunity I get to bring one up its always shot down immediately with some lame excuse like they tried it before (a million years ago with someone who no longer works here) or my favorite: the salespeople can’t fit any more (useful ) info into their heads (that might make them sell more) they just need to focus on (their same old routine or they just might implode) dialing that phone…

  7. Student*

    Any good suggestions on how to bring #2 up with a project manager when it’s not being asked?

    We keep chasing the latest fancy nice-to-have, while core product features go unimplemented. I have no idea how to turn this around and say, “Look, I agree that a fancy flower-painted spout would really be nice to have, but our teapot needs a handle first guys. We can’t keep pushing the handle design to the back-burner and expect to have a finished teapot by the end of this project.”

  8. Tomato Frog*

    I love this post! My last boss treated her employees as her collaborators. Even though I was just working part time on a small piece of a big project, I felt real ownership of my piece and we came up with good solutions to problems. On the other hand, at my current job, I’m constantly surprised at my bosses’ unwillingness to treat their experienced, highly educated, intelligent, and passionate employees as a resource for improving our product.

  9. Katie the Fed*

    Before I’ve instituted any major changes, I’ve always solicited the team’s input. Like “I’m thinking of doing X, but since it’ll affect all of you more than me, I want to know what you think and what other ideas you might have.”

    In some cases I’ve gone forward, in others I’ve rolled forward with some adjustments, but it’s ALWAY been useful. And I explain clearly to the team why I’m doing what I’m doing. They may or may not agree, but they were at least heard.

  10. babblemouth*

    “What aren’t you getting done?”

    Yes, yes, yes. A safe space to explain the things that are sliding by while we’re so busy on that “number one top priority project” is the best way to flag problems way ahead of time.

    My boss does that. He’s great.

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