The single most important management technique to teach new managers

by Enlist Content Team

Boss mug

It sometimes seems that the advice that sticks the most comes from comments that were never intended to stick. Throwaway remarks. Often made by people who almost certainly don't realise the gravity of their words at the time.

A brief conversation almost ten years ago with the co-founder of a UK start-up proved to be a classic example. I had just been moved to my first management role with the company and the founder and I were chatting about an acquisition deal he was working on. The price and term sheet had all been agreed, there were just a couple of minor disagreements relating to re-branding of the new office and stationary.

Given that we were the acquiring company, and these issues seemed quite minor, I was confused as to why we were treading so carefully. “It seems stupid. They’re going to have to rebrand everything at some point anyway, why not just tell them to do it now?” The co-founder replied “Yeah I know. But ultimately, nobody likes being told what to do. Sometimes you’ve got to let people figure it out for themselves".

Why is poor management still so common?

In spite of a shift away from command and control management styles over the last two decades, bad management is still a factor of everyday working life. Even in startups with progressive philosophies and a library full of modern management books.

But why is poor management so often overlooked by organisations that get so many other things right? Even Google, famed for its workplace culture, arguably overlooked the importance of analysing manager performance until it hired Laszlo Bock to run People Ops in 2006. At this point, Google already had around 6000 employees.

How big a problem is this?

The relative difficulty of measuring the negative impacts of bad management leave it chronically underestimated as a problem. If your SEO person isn't delivering, or your new sign up form is underperforming it's easy to quantify the negative impact and the opportunity cost to the business. However, it's hard to quantify the opportunity cost of poor management.

Attrition rates are obviously highly correlated with poor management but staff attrition only surface months after the initial problem has occurred. By then it’s too late. Also, waiting for staff to leave before taking action, isn’t exactly the most elegant of business strategies.

We'll never know with absolute certainty how much better your team could perform if they were more ‘highly motivated’, or what new ideas people might be implemented if they were inspired in the right way. But it's not unrealistic to place a couple orders of magnitude on the difference between an extremely unmotivated individual to a highly engaged and motivated performer.

How can we mitigate these ?

Given the huge influence managers have over output why do we often see so little attention paid to helping first-time managers get it right? Making the first step into management is a huge transition. Particularly when moving to manage people who previously considered you a peer. So what is the single most important lesson a new manager can learn?

We believe it's the principle of 'Guided Discovery'.

The Guided Discovery approach essentially means you should deliver feedback in a series of questions that guide the recipient to the answer rather than just delivering your feedback directly to the recipient.

Be patient in the short-term it will provide long-term benefits

Taking a guided discovery approach to management will require you to spend more time on individual interactions with your team. Giving a straight answer to a question might only take 20 seconds, but choosing to engage in a guided discovery discussion with an individual might lead to a 10-minute conversation.

You need to be prepared for the fact that your immediate work tasks might be interrupted for these ad-hoc coaching sessions. But we should be mindful that investing time in the short term to coach should prevent people asking the same question multiple times and make the team more self-sufficient in the long run.

Ask open ended questions

The aim of guided discovery is too push the other party to come to the answer themselves. Therefore you need to ask questions that provoke the person to think broadly. Try not to steer their thinking in one direction. That means avoiding leading questions and using unbiased open-ended questions.

A good place to start is by asking the other party for their opinion, then dig into why they have come to that opinion, and then lastly challenge that opinion by presenting hypothetical situations.

Know when to explain

Sometimes you might try and lead someone to come to a conclusion and they don't pick up on the hints. Know when to cut your losses and be more direct with the point you need to make. If it takes too long to get to the point you run the risk of the process becoming long-winded and boring.

The role of the manager is too push and inspire the team to think with greater structure and clarity. A better spread of problem-solving capabilities prevents bottlenecks across your organisation. Guided discovery is the key to imparting that on your team, the earlier they learn the better.

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