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I firmly believe that management is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the working world at the moment. Whether it be government or private, I think Western society has an unrealistic and in fact downright wrong view of what good management is supposed to be. I’ve had two years of management experience myself, and I’ve had almost twenty years of experience working under piss poor managers.I’ve learned a lot of lessons from my time under both good bosses and bad bosses, and I’d like to think that I took the best and left the worst when I had people working underneath me.

The first thing I learned about good management is the mindset that you are not a “boss”, you are a servant. If you want your people to respect you, to give you their best, you have to look at your job as doing everything possible to get the best out of them. Far too many people believe that they are superior in some way to the people that work under them, or that their every moment should be used telling people what to do and stamp their authority. A line from the movie Braveheart is particularly pertinent here. When the Scottish nobles begin arguing after Wallace is knighted, he walks out on them. When he is stopped, he says “there’s a difference between you and me – you believe the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I believe your position exists to provide those people with freedom, and I go to make sure that they have it”.

A bad manager believes that the people under him exist to serve him, when it is in fact the other way around. Take this attitude as a boss, and your subordinates will despise you. People are very good at picking up delusions of grandeur in their managers and will almost always “compensate” themselves for your behaviour. That compensation could be in the form of taking extra long lunches, stepping out of the office more than is appropriate, responding to requests far slower than they should and so on. I’ve even seen it take the direct form of stealing.

A good manager believes that they are there to (in addition to their work) serve their subordinates. The first thing a good manager does is remove obstacles. Obstacles are those small, pain in the ass things that take away from the main object of work. I read a great post on the corporate blog a while ago on how to get the best computer programmers working for you. The answer basically boils down to being a remover of obstacles. Programmers hate rigid work schedules, they hate typical work obligations. They do their best work in fits and spurts, in between which they like to take short naps on the couch (because programming is extremely mentally taxing). A regular workplace with set hours, standard patterns of office behaviour and having to wear a suit is anathema to them. A good programming manager would be doing their best to accommodate the programmer’s needs, knowing that it will yield dividends shortly down the track. It is their job to take any heat coming from above and keep it away from the programmers so that they can work. Good managers will keep their admin tasks to a minimum, their contact with other groups to a minimum and their need to quantify everything to management at a minimum.

An excellent example of multiple mistakes made by a manager is the principal of a good friend of mine that is a school teacher. My friend loves their job teaching kids, however they are required to spend a lot of time doing professional development outside the classroom. The fact that the professional development courses are chosen completely by the executive staff with no input from the teachers is the first problem. The second problem is that they are widely seen as a waste of time by the teachers. They have to participate in games and things you would expect children to do. In essence, the teachers’ time is being wasted. It is that principal’s job as a manager to get rid of such useless distractions from the job of actually teaching. Making them do what the teachers see as useless activities is in fact adding obstacles to their main job of teaching.

A good principal would also be asking for feedback from those teachers. This is possibly the worst mistake I see from managers – assuming that they know best and that the people underneath could not possibly have any good ideas or even worse, that they are stupid. For starters, those people under you are the ones at the coal face every day. They know what they need. Ask them, and then listen carefully to what they say. In my opinion, if you are not asking your team as a whole what could be improved at least every six months, you’re doing it wrong. A large part of excellence in any workplace is constant review and the desire to improve, a good manager should be driving that by picking the brains of their subordinates.

Another thing that the above example shows is that a good manager also needs to be actively developing their staff. Don’t flood them with ridiculous professional development that you assume is exactly what they need. Of course, there needs to be mandatory personal development for the whole team in line with any job. That isn’t disputed. However the majority of professional development should be arranged with your subordinates input. Your subordinates know exactly what they need and where they want their career to go. I have seen several managers give their disapproval of requested courses and subsequently putting their subordinate on a course they did not want. As I said above, people are perceptive. Those people knew straight away that that manager was trying to block their ascension in the organisation. I apologise for the bolding again but it is absolutely necessary – a good manager should never fear their people improving or being promoted. A good manager should want their people to improve and be promoted. Fearing such a thing means a manager is either a:) petty and jealous or b:) is bad at their own job and fears being replaced. It should be the most natural and obvious thing in the world – if your staff are improving and doing great work, and being promoted it makes the manager look very good to their superiors.

Management is a big topic with so much to explore. That’s it for this post, the next aspect I will tackle is the human aspects of management, and how to actually deal with people if you want the best out of them.