transcript of “How Can I be a Good Manager?”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “How Can I be a Good Manager?”

Alison: Being a good manager is hard. It’s especially hard when you’re new to doing it, and managers often don’t get a lot of guidance — even though managing is usually a whole different skillset from whatever they were doing previously. Our guest today is a newish manager who wants to make sure she’s doing a good job, and we’re going to talk through how she can make that happen. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, thank you so much.

Alison: So what you wrote to me is that you finished grad school a couple of years ago and you started a company with a colleague, and it’s been more successful than you expected it to be. And now you have three full time employees and some part time contractors, but as you wrote, before this you had never had what you would consider a real job. And suddenly you’re a manager and you’re living in fear of being a bad one. And you feel like things are good with your cofounder, but you’re struggling with how to best manage your staff and you’re not quite used to this boss/employee dynamic. Am I getting that all right?

Guest: That’s exactly right.

Alison: And you wrote when you first contacted me that some of your biggest concerns are getting the balance right between being a casual and fun place to work, but also making sure that people respect you enough and understand that you’re making the final decisions. And you also want to be sure that you’re identifying any weaknesses that you might be oblivious to, because it feels hard to get honest feedback, especially from a small team, and you’re not sure how to solicit it. And more generally, just learning how to be an effective manager. Does that all sound right?

Guest: That’s all exactly right, yeah. We work in a tech startup kind of field where usually it’s pretty casual and fun, but obviously there’s still lots of deadlines and things that need to be done. And then we have so far really great staff, and it’s a very competitive field and I don’t want to lose them. I’d hate to be oblivious to something terrible in my managing style and then lose an employee.

Alison: Yeah. Well, it’s great that you’re thinking about it because so many people don’t even do that sort of reflection, and then we get lots of bad managers who people write in about (laughs). Before we jump into advice, tell me a little bit about how things are going. Do you feel like you’re getting what you need from your staff, and does work get done the way you want it to be done, and are you comfortable giving feedback? That kind of thing?

Guest: I would say it’s pretty good. The technical work is very strong. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to delegate exactly, how much responsibility to give people, what’s reasonable to expect in terms of how fast someone should work. For some of my staff, they have the same skillset as me so I can benchmark: “Oh this should take me two weeks so maybe it’ll take them similar or a bit longer”, but with some of my staff, they’re totally outside my field. It’s really hard for me to even assess what’s reasonable or not. And I find that hard.

Alison: Yeah, that is hard. I think what might make sense is to start with a bunch of general advice on managing in general, and then we can dive into some of those more specific questions if that sounds good.

Guest: That sounds great.

Alison: Okay. Well let’s start with: how do you even learn to be an effective manager in the first place? I can’t answer this question without doing a plug for my book for managers, which is called Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results. And as you can tell from the title, it is primarily targeted to nonprofit managers. But really, 99% of what’s in there is going to apply to managers in any sector, and it will really walk you through the nitty gritty of how you do some of the stuff that we’re about to talk about in broader terms. What I had found before writing it — well, co-authoring it, I should say — is that a lot of the management books that are out there are pretty theoretical, but I think what managers often really want and need is the real detail of it. Like, what do I say in this meeting? And how exactly do I approach this issue and what does it sound like? And how do I structure conversations about someone’s performance? That sort of thing. The book really goes into detail on this and exactly how you do it. So it might be worth checking out as a reference material.

Guest: That sounds great.

Alison: But let’s talk bigger themes and you can use that as a reference later if you want to. I think the biggest thing that you want to do as a manager, because everything else will stem from it, is to be really clear in your own head on what your job is, what you’re there to do as a manager. And I am going to argue that your fundamental job as a manager is to make sure that your organization gets the results that it needs. There’s a lot that goes into that, of course. There’s laying out clear expectations and setting the right goals and hiring the right people and developing them and giving them good feedback — and building a culture that supports all of those things and is somewhere that people want to work. But ultimately those are all means to an end, and that end is achieving whatever it is that you’re setting out to achieve, whatever the goals of the company are. And the reason I’m stressing that is that because a ton of managers lose sight of it. They think that their job is just to develop people or to keep their people happy, or on the other end of the spectrum that they’re there to just enforce rules or monitor people. And it is important to develop people and keep your team happy and monitor work, but those things aren’t ends in themselves. You’re doing them because they’re part of achieving the results that you want.

And again, I’m belaboring this because if you lose sight of it, you will find yourself prioritizing the wrong things. You’ll find yourself avoiding making a decision that will be unpopular, or shying away from a hard conversation because you don’t want to make somebody unhappy, and so forth. So that’s point number one. Look at everything through the lens of how it supports you achieving whatever it is that you want to be achieving.

From there, I think I’m going to run through some of the fundamentals that you want to be thinking about and doing as a manager. And honestly each of these could be a book in itself, so I’m not going to get terribly in depth on any of them unless you jump in and tell me that you do want to go deeper — and feel free to do that with any of these. But otherwise, this is just a list to get you thinking about the areas that you want to be paying special attention to. There’s that sort of “you don’t know what you don’t know” kind of thing, so I would say look at this as a list of areas to make sure that you’re being thoughtful about.

The first and maybe the biggest one is being really clear with yourself and with your team about what you want them to do and what it would look like to do it successfully. And I know that sounds really obvious, but people don’t always do it very effectively and if you don’t, it’s really easy for you and the people working with you to get pulled in a bunch of different directions instead of figuring out what are the most important things for us to achieve and focusing there. So for the organization as a whole and for each individual person who works for you, you want to get really clear on, what would a successful year look like? If it’s the end of the year and we’re looking back on the previous twelve months, what do we want to have achieved for it to have been a successful year? That way, by hashing that out and creating really clear goals for that time period based on that, everyone’s going to be on the same page about what successful work in their role looks like. And you’re not going to have people wondering, am I doing a good job? Am I doing the things she wants me to be doing? And you’re not going to have people spending time on things that ultimately are trumped by things that are more important to you. Does that make sense?

Guest: Definitely. Yeah. And how do you balance, say, an employee where you don’t really know how to do their jobs, so you can explain what you want them to do, but not exactly how you want them to do it?

Alison: Hopefully you’ve hired someone who has a track record of getting those things done or getting things that are very similar done, so you have some reason to put your trust in their skills and their ability to achieve those things. And then I would say talk to them. I would explicitly ask the question, “What is reasonable for us to accomplish this year? What I’m hoping is that we could do X, Y, and Z. What do you think? Is that realistic? Is that enough? Is it not ambitious enough?” And have that conversation with them, and it should be kind of a collaborative process if you’ve hired the right people. If you’ve hired people who don’t have the skills to do it, that’s a real problem if you don’t have those skills either, because then you can’t train them, but I’m assuming that you feel pretty confident. You said you’re happy with your team?

Guest: Yes, yeah, exactly.

Alison: So I would just have that conversation, and it’s completely okay — I think sometimes, especially when people are first managing, they feel like people expect them to have all the answers. Actually, it really enhances your credibility when you admit that you don’t. It’s completely fine to sit down with someone and say, “I’m really going to be leaning on you to help me figure this out because this is your area of expertise. So let’s talk through this.”

Guest: Right, that makes sense.

Alison: And I think what you want to have — and this touches on your question earlier about how do you know if you’re not an expert in their area that their timelines are reasonable and that the quality of their work is reasonable — I think you need to have a pretty good BS detector to some extent. If your spidey sense is going off and telling you, “This just doesn’t sound right to me,” don’t dismiss that just because they are more expert than you are. I would take that as a flag that something’s going on there and you should sit down and dig into it. Maybe the thing that’s going on is that you just have some incorrect assumptions and by talking to them you can straighten that out. But maybe there is something more going on. One thing that I have found is that when I am managing areas of work that aren’t my area of expertise, there’s always small things that I do understand that I will understand — “Oh, that person is really great at follow through,” or “They’re not so great at follow through,” or “The way they’re explaining this to this client really doesn’t make sense and I don’t think that person is understanding it.” There are pieces like that that you will be equipped to judge, and I would put real weight on those because in my experience you can extrapolate pretty well. The small pieces that you are equipped to understand will usually lead you in the right direction.

Guest: Right. That totally makes sense.

Alison: I mean, not entirely of course, I don’t want to overstate that, but more often than not that will be the case. And when you’re having those conversations with people, when you’re saying, “Help me figure this out, I want to lean on you for your expertise,” you’re going to get a feel for, do I trust what they’re saying? Does it make sense to me? Does it seem logically sound? Does their critical thinking here seem on target or does it not? And that stuff is all going to point you in a direction of either, “Okay, yes, I can rely on this person, they seem credible, they know what they’re doing,” or “Ooh, it feels like there’s a lot of red flags here.”

Guest: Absolutely.

Alison: If it does turn out that you’re seeing red flags and you do think, “Maybe this person isn’t doing what I need them to do, or they’re not right for the role,” then you might be thinking, “But am I even really equipped to assess that?” That is when you come back to the goals that we were just talking about setting. If you’re really clear at the outset of the year or the six month period or whatever time period you choose — if you’re really clear, you both get aligned and you both agree, “This is what we’re going to achieve in this time period, this is what success would look like,” you’re going to have really good data on whether or not that’s actually happening.

Guest: Right. And then you can kind of assess did this happen and if not, why not, and then that will give you that information.

Alison: Exactly. It makes it really easy to assess performance. We were just talking about clarity for expectations for a big chunk of time, like a year, but you also want to be really clear about expectations on a smaller level too. If you’re assigning a project, you want to take the time to really talk through whatever is in your head about it. It’s really easy as a manager to delegate very quickly, three sentences: “Can you take care of this for me? Here’s the deadline.” But if you don’t have a longer conversation … I mean, obviously not everything requires a longer conversation, but if it’s a pretty major project and you don’t really talk it through, you’re setting yourself and the staff person up for frustration when they put a bunch of work in and then it comes back to you and you say, “Oh, this isn’t really what I was talking about.” That sucks for everyone. It’s not a good use of people’s time. So I would say really invest on the front end in making sure that if you do have expectations in your head about how something will go or what it will look like when it comes back to you, that you’re very deliberate about sharing that with your staff so that they’re not trying to guess and they’re not getting blindsided. They’re not finding out halfway through, “Oh, she had these expectations that she didn’t tell me about.”

Guest: Yes, absolutely.

Alison: And then you also want to apply that at another level too. Not just long term goals, not just individual projects, but also how people are operating in general. How you expect them to approach their work. Just to give you a random example, if you wouldn’t like it if they took more than a day to return a client’s phone call, tell them that. Make sure they know that. What people tend to do is they don’t make those implicit expectations explicit, and so people don’t meet those expectations, and then they get really frustrated and they’re wondering, “Why is this person waiting days to return a client’s phone call? They should just know that they should return it within a day.” Well maybe, depending on your context, maybe they should just know, but you’re setting everyone up for failure if you don’t just tell them. So you probably have a lot of expectations in your head of how we do things here or how we definitely don’t do things here. And I would be very deliberate about pulling that stuff out of your head, whatever it is, so that you can share it with people and you and they don’t end up frustrated.

Guest: Yes, that definitely makes good sense.

Alison: Another thing kind of related to clear expectations is feedback. Giving people feedback on their work is a really key part of your job — and that doesn’t just mean feedback when something goes wrong or needs to be changed, it means feedback all the time. Feedback on what’s going well and what could be better and how someone could go from pretty good to really great. How comfortable are you with giving feedback?

Guest: Very comfortable with giving positive feedback, we do lots of that. Negative I find a little bit harder.

Alison: Yeah. Most people do. Most people actually, I think when they start managing, they’re at one end of the spectrum or the other. I think yours is the most common: it feels good to give praise, I can do that; it’s a little more awkward to give critical feedback. But there are also people who do the reverse — who are super comfortable with the criticism and it doesn’t occur to them to do the praise piece. But it’s really normal to feel a little awkward about criticism. The easiest way to do it is to get in the habit of giving feedback on a really regular basis, and to sort of build it in to an existing structure. So if you have regular one on one meetings with your staff, every time have part of those meetings be to debrief recent projects. Put it on the agenda. You can even call it a debriefing, because then it’s not so scary like feedback is, you’re just talking about how a recent project went. But if you make it a thing where you’re doing it every time and it’s built into how you operate, it won’t be so hard to initiate when you do have some serious criticism. Sometimes people don’t do that. They give praise and it’s fine, and then one day there’s actually a serious issue they have to talk about and they’re like, “Oh no,” and it feels really dramatic and they’re calling someone into the conference room and they’ve got a box of tissues there and it feels like this big serious thing, but it doesn’t have to be that. If you build it into your existing structure so that you’re always debriefing and you’re always talking about how things are going, it’s going to be so much less dramatic and stressful for everyone.

Guest: Yes. That makes total sense. Do you think it’s a good idea to do the compliment sandwich? I’ve always kind of used that where saying, “Oh, you’re doing these things well, and this one thing could use work, and then here’s some other things you’re doing well.” Or do you think that’s not the best way to go?

Alison: I am not a huge fan of the compliment sandwich. I know some people like it and find it really useful, and if you feel like it’s working for you and for your staff, great. But I’ll tell you why I don’t love it. One is, sometimes people start to recognize what you’re doing and so every time you praise them, they start bracing themselves thinking, “Oh no, what is she about to criticize?” So you don’t want that, and you also don’t want people to feel like you’re dealing with them by formula.

Guest: Right.

Alison: The other thing is that sometimes it means the message can be lost, that the person either just hears the positive stuff and doesn’t think that the critical part is that big of a deal because you just said all this positive stuff about their work — or the opposite of that happens, they just hear the criticism and they completely forget the positive things that you said. And you don’t want that. You want to make sure that you’re giving them praise in a way that’s really going to register with them.

I think people turn to the compliment sandwich because it feels a little better to do it that way.

Guest: Yeah, a little bit softer.

Alison: Yeah, but I think you can give criticism in a way that feels safe for the person and that feels supportive, and where it’s clear that you are not questioning their entire fit for the role. And part of the way to do it, something that really will make it easier, is if you do normalize it. If it does become just a normal part of the conversations that you’re having when you check in weekly or biweekly or whatever it is.

Guest: Right. And not be like, “Oh, we need to have this big talk.”

Alison: Exactly. And if you also are sure that you’re giving positive feedback and it sounds like you are, that’s going to help with that feeling that people will sometimes get where you give them a piece of criticism and they think their whole job is in jeopardy. Now, some people will think that no matter what you do, but in general, as long as you’re giving more praise than you are criticism, most people are going to take that pretty well. If you’re not giving more praise than criticism, then I would look at, is that a problem with the way that you’re managing? Or is it a flag that maybe there’s some pretty serious concerns about the person’s fit for the job?

Guest: Right.

Alison: Okay, let’s see. Another big area to think about is that a key part of your job as a manager is to build a great team. And I say that because you don’t want to be passive about it. You want to put real energy into hiring good people — and the flip side of that, addressing it when someone really isn’t working out.

Now, doing that means being a place that people want to work. Treating people well and being fair and being open and compassionate while still holding a high bar for the work that you’re doing. When we started out at the start of the show and I was like, “Oh, sometimes people think that managing is just all about supporting their team,” I’m not being dismissive of that. I think supporting your team is really important. It’s important for this reason — that it will help you attract and retain good people if you’re someone that people want to work for and you’re a company that people want to work in. And I mean obviously it’s the right thing to do. I don’t mean to discount that, but ultimately it’s part of building a company that is going to run really well over time. And part of that is being really deliberate about the culture that you’re creating.

And that’s not really stuff like, do you have a foosball table in the office? Although I know that it gets talked about that way a lot. It’s more the “how we do things around here” stuff that is important to how the company functions. It’s stuff like, what kind of energy is in the office most days? And how do people interact? And how do you handle new ideas? And how accountable do people feel for their work? Culture tends to not get a lot of attention with a small staff, but it’s something to have in your head to be thinking about, especially if you keep growing and bringing new people on.

Guest: Yeah, something that’s actually made us grow bit smaller on purpose is because we’re afraid to double in size overnight and we feel like our culture might just kind of get away from us.

Alison: Yeah, growth is really hard, especially when you’re going from from pretty small to not quite as small. It’s very common to find that the practices and systems, or in some cases lack of practices and systems, that worked for you at a small size don’t really translate as you get bigger. And I think that’s true of culture too, and it just becomes all the more important to be very deliberate about it.

Guest: Yeah, that totally makes sense.

Alison: You mentioned in your letter to me that you’re concerned about getting the balance right between being a casual and fun place to work, but also making sure that people respect you enough that they understand that you make the final decisions. How do you feel like that’s going so far? Does it feel like it’s more or less okay, or have there been issues?

Guest: I feel like we definitely are erring on the side of a fun, happy place to work. And we certainly have done good work and have good feedback on clients and so that part’s going really well, but I think sometimes deadlines aren’t taken as seriously as they could be.

Alison: How do you handle deadlines? Like if someone misses a deadline, what happens?

Guest: When it happened recently I had a conversation with someone about getting something done by a certain date and then when that date came up I asked her how it was going and she said basically oh, she might be able to get part of it done by the end of the day. And I was a little unsure how to deal with that to be honest, because I just said something like, “Oh, I thought you knew that this was a deadline and that if you couldn’t meet it, you would at least let me know.” So that’s something I’ve been struggling a little bit with is how do I… I made it pretty clear that we needed to meet the deadlines a bit better, but I’m not really sure exactly what I should’ve done differently. Because I’m pretty sure it’s something to do with my management is why that happened and I don’t know exactly what it was.

Alison: How clear were you when you first set the deadline? Sometimes people think that they have communicated a deadline clearly, but in reality it’s come across as more of a suggestion. Like, “It would be great if you could do this by Tuesday,” but the person hears that as, “Well, Tuesday would be great, but Friday would be fine too.” Do you remember how clear you were?

Guest: I feel like I was fairly clear but I also know that I gave her a bunch of other things to do after that that were less urgent, but she may have interpreted them as “I should be working on these now instead or in addition to, so the deadline now is a little bit less important.” I don’t think I explicitly said, “But wait and do these things after.”

Alison: How much time was there between when you first made the assignment and when it was due?

Guest: About a week.

Alison: Okay. So enough time that she could have come back to you and said, “Hey, I have concerns about my ability to meet this deadline.”

Guest: Definitely.

Alison: So, I think, a couple of things. You might be right, it really might just be this one time fluke and she just had a bunch of other things going on, but I suspect you’re bringing it up because it feels like more of a pattern. So I think a couple of things. One, do be very clear when you’re setting deadlines — and you might be, but make sure that it’s not sounding like a suggestion. Make sure it’s, “I will need this by the end of the day.” You know what? I would even be more explicit because the end of the day can be interpreted as 5:00 or 11:00 at night. So let me back up. I would say, “I need this by 5:00 pm on Tuesday. Do you think you’ll be able to do that?” So you’re getting their commitment to it and then if the deadline comes and the person is being kind of wishy washy, you know, the conversation that you had where she was like, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s going to happen.” Two things: in the moment, you can say, “Oh, I really do need it by the end of today. Is there anything you can move around to make that happen?” So that your intent is very clear, you’re not being loosey goosey about this deadline, you are making it very clear that you really do need it. In some cases, the person might be able to pull that off and in other cases maybe not.

Either way though, afterward, have a conversation about it because this is how you get deadlines taken seriously in your culture. You don’t just let it go and feel annoyed about it. You talk about it and that means sitting down with her. And it doesn’t have to be like a whole special meeting just for this. It can be the next time you have a weekly check in or something, but you say, “Hey, I know we had talked about having project X due on Tuesday. What happened there?” And that’s it. That’s all you need to say. “What happened there?” Those are your magic words for accountability. Because what it’s doing is … well, it’s doing a few things. Most importantly, it’s communicating, “This is actually a problem that we’re going to talk about. I’m concerned that it didn’t happen and it’s a big enough issue that we’re talking about why it played out that way.” But also, you’re giving the person a chance to give you information that you might not have. Maybe what happened is you gave her three other projects that had sooner deadlines or, maybe she was really sick, or she was working from home and her power went out, or who knows, there could be reasons. So you don’t want to just launch into a lecture. You want to make sure that you’re hearing the person out and getting their perspective. And frankly you don’t even need the lecture at that point. Just the “what happened” is usually enough of the conversation.

Now, if it keeps happening, you don’t want to just keep having the “what happened” conversation week after week. That would be not good. If it becomes a pattern, then you talk about the pattern. And then the conversation is, “Hey, I’m concerned — there’s this pattern. You’ve missed a bunch of deadlines recently. What’s going on?” Oh look, it’s actually a version of “what happened” (laughs), but you’re talking about the pattern at that point.

Guest: Right, that makes sense.

Alison: But for the one time, “what happened” is usually enough. And sometimes I think managers feel like, “Am I supposed to be coming down harder on the person and what would that even look like?” But really these are adults, they’re presumably good at their jobs. You hired them because you trusted them. “What happened” is a respectful way to address it and convey your concern about it. Now, if they’re not people who you trust to do your job, that’s a totally different issue, but it sounds like they are.

Guest: They are, definitely.

Alison: Now let me ask you this. A lot of new managers feel kind of awkward about having authority and exercising authority. It just feels weird. Do you feel weird about it?

Guest: Yes, definitely.

Alison: Super normal. I think it feels weird for like a minimum of one year, and I think for most people a few years. The interesting thing, and I think it really helps to remember it, is that if you have decent employees, they probably don’t feel weird about it at all. It’s normal to have a boss. It probably feels like a completely normal matter-of-fact thing that you have authority over them. You probably have a bigger hang up about it than they do.

Guest: I think that’s true, and they’ve all had jobs before and had managers before. So I think for them it’s very normal.

Alison: Yeah. And if you think about … well, you said you haven’t had a real job history. I was going to say if you think about times when you’ve had a boss, you probably didn’t feel really awkward about the fact that they had authority. But yeah, in their shoes they probably don’t feel weird so it’s not weird unless you make it weird. And ways that you could make it weird are being noticeably uncomfortable about it, or really holding off on addressing issues — or dancing around it. That thing I was talking about, about presenting things as suggestions when they’re really not suggestions is a really common trap when someone doesn’t feel comfortable with authority. It’s easier to say, “Well, Tuesday would be great if you can get to it,” rather than a more authoritative, “I need this by Tuesday.”

Guest: Right, which is actually so much more actionable.

Alison: Right, and it’s better for the person who you’re managing to let them know what you need so that they can meet those expectations. Really the more matter of fact you can be about having authority, the more comfortable everyone will be, but you do have to fake it for for a while. It’s not going to come naturally. Just pretend that you feel comfortable with it and at some point you will look around and realize that you do. But it takes a while.

Guest: That makes sense.

Alison: I think too, most of the time you want to be taking a pretty collaborative approach with the people that you manage. You respect their opinions and their input and you want to hear from them, and then you’ll do your own job which is using that input from them to make decisions. But you can be collaborative. I think sometimes when people start managing, they have this idea in their head that they’re supposed to be the boss, really rigid and just delivering these orders. And you can be collaborative with people, because you do have the authority to use when you need to, so if you do need to step in at some point and say, “Hey, I actually want us to do this a little bit differently,” or “We’re going to go in a different direction,” you have the authority to say that, but you don’t need to be exuding that authority all the time. You can just treat them like a normal colleague most of the time.

Guest: Right. Okay. Well that’s good to know because that tends to be what we do.

Alison: Good. And I think you had asked about making it clear that even though you have a pretty casual culture, there are times when you’ll be making the final decision. And I think, just be matter of fact about that too. Do be clear about your decision making structure, because where people run into problems with this is when they’re so collaborative that they say things that signal that a decision is a group decision when they don’t actually mean that. So you just want to be upfront and transparent. You might say at the start of the discussion, “You know, I’m figuring out how we’re going to handle X, and I’d love to get your input as I make the decision.”

Guest: Yes. I think that’s the balance I need to strike better.

Alison: So you’re welcoming and inviting their input, but you’re using that input because you are making the decision. Or you could say, “I need to make a decision about X. I’d love any thoughts you have on it.” Or if something is sensitive, you might even be more explicit about it. You could say, “Hey, I want to note that we’re not going to decide this as a group, but I do want to get everyone’s input and advice.” And then if you do make a decision that is different from what people wanted, just explain why you ended up there and be clear that you did consider their input in your thinking and why you ultimately went in a different direction. Because most people are going to feel respected if it’s clear that you heard them out and you took their input seriously, even if you ultimately made a different choice.

Guest: Yeah. Excellent.

Alison: Now, you also mentioned you want to be sure that you’re spotting any weaknesses that you have and that it’s hard to get candid feedback from people you’re managing, which is very true. One of the best ways to do it is to just create a culture where people feel safe talking to you, that they know that they won’t be penalized in some way for being candid. Honestly, it’s hard to do because some people have had bosses in the past who did penalize them for being candid, or they grew up in a family that really reinforced that bosses are the enemy, or some people just won’t be that candid with managers — but a lot of people will, if you demonstrate that it’s safe for them to do it. But you can also make a point of asking probing questions every so often, like periodically asking people how things are going and what would make their jobs easier, if there’s anything that you personally could be doing differently, and that kind of thing. And if you have created an environment where it’s safe for people to speak openly and you ask those questions, and you make it clear you really want the answers, you’ll hear… well, you’ll hear some of it. You still might not hear all of it, because there’s power dynamics there. But the other thing is to develop relationships with other people, people who don’t manage, who you trust to be straight with you. So maybe that’s your co-founder, maybe it’s colleagues and other companies so you can bounce things off, maybe it’s a mentor-type figure — but the idea is to diversify, to figure you’re probably never going to hear everything there is to hear from your own staff, but that if you work on developing good, trusting relationships across a range of people, your chances go up.

Guest: Right. That makes sense. Not just relying on them to tell me their deepest, darkest feelings.

Alison: Exactly. Oh, and this is really important: part of making people feel safe sharing input with you is to demonstrate that you don’t shoot the messenger. And I know we all think, “Oh, I would never shoot the messenger,” but people do it. A lot of people do it. So if people who you manage see you get angry or visibly frustrated when you get bad news, or you hear something you don’t like or agree with, they are never going to give you honest feedback about their own weaknesses. It’s just not worth that risk. And you’re always kind of onstage as a manager. People are watching your reactions to all kinds of things. Even if you don’t feel like you’re in an official moment of managing. And so if you react badly to bad news, there goes your chances of candid input down the road. So never shoot the messenger if you want real feedback.

Guest: That makes sense.

Alison: Well, hopefully this was helpful. Thank you so much for coming on.

Guest: It really was. Thank you so much.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.