Does a Manager’s Proximity to the Team Affect Dynamics and Decision-Making?
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One key challenge with first-line managers, especially those fairly new in their roles, is how to strike right balance between formal reporting relationship and informal personal relations with the team. Considering that most people “leave managers and not companies”, this seems to be a critical issue, but seldom discussed. In my career, I have also seen similar issues when people became a second-line manager or a group manager for the first-time – so, this is not a one-time issue.
I have often seen managers who have been promoted from within going all too out to please the team that “nothing has really changed” and they are still the good old buddy that they have known him all along. In their earnest to earn brownie points from their once-colleagues-but-now-team, they behave and act like one of the guys. Nothing could be wrong with it, except when personal proximity limits or blurs their professional judgment, especially when pulling up low performers. At times, I have seen this was the ‘bribe’ such managers were willing to pay to buy their team’s ‘respect’. The team definitely loves such managers (“I drank till 3am last weekend with my manager”, or “We plan to watch movie with our manager this evening”), and the manager also has surely found a way to make peace with his team, some of whom might be secretly jealous of his growth. Sometimes, they also overdelegate, or recommend promotions too-soon for their teams – which could be an indication of the secret guilt or discomfort they carry inside them. Surely, this is not an easy seat to occupy, and with little preparation or onboarding support given to rookie managers, it is not surprising that people find what appeals to them best. Surely, these managers are extremely popular with their teams! I call them Santa Claus – they come to office with a goodie bag, and fulfill their team member’s wishes every day.
On the other extreme end are managers who think it will dilute their no-nonsense macho image to deliver results if they start mingling with the team. They maintain a two-mile distance from the team, and as a result, are not generally very popular, sometimes feared and often ignored from the social circuit of the team. They start moving with the ‘upper crust’. Even if such behavior might help those managers in maintaining a healthy professional-personal balance, sometimes they might lose their ability to influence their teams and motivate them to do that extra bit just to make sure the job is not just done, but is done well. At times, they might not even understand the team’s motivation levels, or their collective decision-making process, or their unappointed power centres, etc. I once had an expat manager who had never written code in his life and was clearly unfit to be a software manager. He regularly ‘bought’ respect and support by ‘delegating’ most of his work to the team. Actually, abdicating his responsibilities was more like it. While he sat in (literally) a corner cabin, the team toiled in a meeting room next door, which was ok – the team members got a lot of additional responsibilities in the bargain. What became a problem was when we ran into some some design bugs during system testing – he came and started getting angry at the team. What he clearly didn’t realize that by ‘delegating’ his responsibilities, he didn’t stop owning the consequences of the decisions the team was making without him! Within next few months, most of us left him and that company. Then I had another boss who was promoted from within as a group manager. While he was some sort of a poster-boy success as a first-line manager, he was all too-new as a second-line manager and without much mentoring on how to effectively lead first-line managers, he started behaving in an autocratic manner. When he wanted us for a quick conversation, he would simply shout names of us lesser mortals from inside his cabin! Goes without saying that none of those managers exist in my LinkedIn network .
What’s a better approach – sitting with the troops in the trenches and drinking beer till neighbors call the cops, or working from that corner office (or whatever that is called nowadays) and keep a safe distance from the ‘guys’? I guess there is no single universal answer – they come in all hues. Excess on either sides seems like something to be avoided. Also, this doesn’t seem to be a unique behavior associated with someone promoted internally or someone brought-in from outside the company. Newcomers also tend to be equally tentative in their first few weeks – they are not sure of their property rights, the holy cows in the organization, the informal power centrers, and so on. So, while they test new waters, there might be tendency to soft-pedal issues in the beginning. If they act too swiftly and aggressively, they might already make ‘enemies’. If they start weeding out the garden too early, they might not have enough ‘context’ and hence might lack the finesse to do the job well. On the other hand, if they start befriending people and build the right network, they need to invest time – something that they might not have.
What are some of the best practices and strategies you have seen around? Are there some ideas with timeless appeal and culture-agnostic applicability? I am sure we can sensitize new managers on the nature of the beast, but one must read the terrain and decide what is the right approach at a given point in time.