We all look to ourselves first, when trying to model the people around us. It’s not a bad start, doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. But it is just a start.
I have been reminded of this in the past two weeks, as I learned how differently my wife and I handle the stresses of having our sleep schedules disrupted by a new baby. My wife needs as many hours of sleep in a day as she can get, but has no difficulty interrupting them and spreading them out. I think she could live on five 2-hour naps a day if she needed to. I, on the other hand, need fewer hours, but I have trouble waking during those hours, and am groggy and difficult when I do finally wake. I can’t nap at all, my mind won’t let me fall asleep mid-day unless I am totally spent.
We aren’t the same, even if we have the same basic needs.
It was very early in my management career when I first realized I had to apply this to my team members, but it’s a lesson I have to relearn all the time.
As a technical contributor, I had a specific working style. I was never a big fan of micromanagement, and in fact my best management experiences were with people who knew little or nothing of the technical details of what I did. Give me a good task to accomplish, believe me when I tell you how long it will take, and I will do right by my estimates. I’ll come to you when I need more, and will be very clear about my needs.
And so this is what I did for the senior people on my team, expecting them to behave like I did. And some of them thrived on it.
But not all of them did. It wasn’t until I felt I had to intervene in someone’s struggling with their work that I realized what a poor job I was doing as manager of this individual. His basic needs were the same as mine, but he had a different working style. Daily status conversations weren’t a problem for him; he preferred them. He felt more comfortable when I pried into the details, when I dug deeper into the challenges he was facing.
I had to adjust my style to suit his. The style I was using left him feeling abandoned. Then again, if I used the style that worked for him with another team member, she would have gotten defensive and frustrated, trying to decide why I didn’t trust her decisions.
The difficult aspect of this is that it sometimes takes someone struggling enough for their performance to become an issue to see this kind of mismatch. What if the person leaves before then? What if they struggle on, secretly hating you, being just short of effective but never really having enough trouble to catch your attention? What if your team happens to all thrive under one style, and a new person is added who completely shakes it up? Will you be able to adapt, or will you cost your team, your organization, perhaps even your company an individual of great talent who just needs what you couldn’t give?
I think mastery of this skill is one difference between a good manager and a mediocre one. The problem is that getting better at it almost requires failing at it enough times to recognize it happening. The truth is that people expect to have to adapt to their managers’ styles. They probably won’t step forward and ask you to change.