Managers are Human Too

March 4, 2021
6 minute read

Managers have it tough. No doubt! Management practices are the source of trouble…

Let’s start with the basics:

Everyone wants to be liked. Everyone wants to be loved. Our deepest need is to receive love in the form of praise, affection, and loyalty. So much of our existence is oriented on this, regardless of how good or bad your childhood was, regardless of what type of work you do, regardless of your “love life”. Not only do we all need to receive love, we all need to give it. We want to surround ourselves with people we love, with things we love, and to do activities we love.

Love permeates human behaviour.

Love is the strongest driver of change.

Yet, managers are rarely loved. And they rarely love their work. Why? Managers are human too… they need and deserve love. So what makes this so hard?

In a way, it’s obvious: managers are responsible for increasing productivity and improving predictability in a work environment. Yet, everyone, including managers, is subject to the fundamental attribution error which, in part, is the belief that problems others have are due to a failure of their personality such as laziness.

So when a manager tries to figure out how to improve productivity and predictability, their biased, default thinking will be to focus on the people and their personalities, rather than the system and environment.

Blaming humans for laziness is one of the worst assumptions one can make as a manager. It’s very easy to see laziness in others. We assume that laziness is based, in part, on people being fundamentally selfish: wanting the most money, power or repute for the least effort possible. Certainly, our Western society encourages this thinking in many respects. It’s hard to avoid!

Yet, most of what we see as laziness, isn’t. Sometimes people are legitimately struggling with:

  • focus
  • energy
  • motivation
  • distraction
  • mental illness
  • physical illness
  • personal emergencies
  • family trouble

And all of these things can “show up” in the work environment as laziness. In most work environments, we encourage people to leave their personal problems out; we don’t talk about these things except maybe with a trusted peer. Unfortunately, these things are often invisible to managers.

So managers (like everyone else) often blame low productivity and poor predictability on laziness (or other imputed personality problems).

This shows up in lots of really awful management practices such as:

Hated Management Practices

  • individual performance reviews,
  • individual outcome-based goal setting,
  • managers assigning tasks to “the best” individual,
  • overloading people with work,
  • imposing arbitrary deadlines,
  • setting stretch goals, and
  • micro-management of activities.

Of course, most of those practices are deeply hated by the people they are imposed upon. Staff associate their manager with those practices, and so the manager is also hated.

Can you see the problem?

Managers want to be loved, too.

Even worse, managers are accountable to their own leaders. So which group does a manager try to satisfy? Well, usually it’s the leaders. Because another important force is at play: survival.

We need to earn a living to survive. Managers are often deeply aware that the work they do doesn’t actually contribute much to the bottom line of a business. In fact, most traditional management activities are wasteful overhead. Everything in that bullet list above provides zero value to customers and zero value to staff.

We love our work when we can take pride in it. We take pride in our work when we create things that other people want, need and appreciate (including ourselves). We also take pride in our work when we accomplish something we weren’t previously able to accomplish: a new level of skill, perfection, speed or quantity.

Managers don’t get to do this if they’re constantly busy with the Hated Management Practices.

Another deep human need is to serve humanity by creating value: knowledge and/or beauty. Managers know that their service is, at best, indirect.

This creates huge problems for managers….

Of course, it’s not all bad. Managers do provide value as well. Here are some of the things that managers do that are valuable, deeply satisfying, and for which they are sometimes loved greatly:

Beloved Management Practices

  • coaching and mentoring their staff to achieve new skills and insights,
  • creating a safe, motivating environment to work within,
  • shielding people from pointless bureaucracy*,
  • giving encouragement,
  • giving praise and reward to real accomplishments,
  • protecting a team from those rare** toxic individuals, and
  • supporting people to learn from “failure”.

But do those things lead to better outcomes? Does this list of beloved management practices improve productivity and predictability? And for that matter, do the hated practices help?

The answer is simple: beloved practices help, hated practices hurt.***

Since managers are people too, and they want to both be loved and serve humanity, focusing on the beloved management practices and quickly discarding the hated management practices is a Good Idea™.

Managers are People Too

If you are a manager, you know how much it hurts to have to do all those hated practices. It feels like doing those things kills just a little bit of your humanity each time you do them.

If you’ve been a manager for a long time, you might even have come to the point of not noticing how bad those things are. Maybe you’re even dehumanizing your staff. You know you are in trouble if:

  • you think of all your people as resources,
  • you resent your staff when they make mistakes,
  • your favourite employees are the ones who never cause trouble,
  • you have decided that your real work is to climb the management ladder, and
  • you don’t like your job.

Managers deserve to love their work and the people they work with. Managers deserve to be loved.

Managers are people too.

* Not all bureaucracy is pointless. Just most of it.

** Toxic individuals are those who are psychopathic, sociopathic or who have motives and goals in conflict with the goals of the organization. These people are, truly, rare. We have to be extremely cautious about the fundamental attribution error bias to not prematurely label people as toxic. Nevertheless, they do exist and a manager needs to be prepared to expel such a person from their organization.

*** There are some increasingly rare situations where the hated practices are appropriate. In particular, a work environment where the majority of effort goes into simple, repetitive tasks can be made more productive and predictable with the hated practices. But they’re still hated. It’s just that in that sort of environment, really you should be replacing people with robots and other types of automation.

Berteig Consulting

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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