The illusion of managing people

Few days ago an old colleague called and asked for my insights on managing people. He wanted to know what are some do’s and don’ts of successful people management, as he had to lead a panel discussion at a prestigious conference. I wasn’t of much help. Because, I told him there is no such thing as “people management”.

In organisations we have departments and managers charged with people management responsibilities. There are training programs to master the skills and techniques of people management.  Most organisations have People Management competencies as one of the essential set of skills needed for professional success.  Many receive feedback at the annual appraisal time that they are poor in managing people. We all live in the illusion that we can “manage people”. It’s a paradox. None of us likes to be “managed”. Our children do not like to be managed. Teenagers hate anyone trying to manage them. Everyone likes to manage themselves.

So if one is charged with the responsibility of “managing people” – which I translate to mean, inspiring, challenging and enabling people to give their best – what should one do? In that case, as leadership we manage certain other things, definitely not people. Here I name three areas from my experience, which if managed well, will help people manage themselves. And in turn, inspire them to produce the results that are desired.

Nurture the culture, can the controls

An alive corporate culture is the best control there is in any organisation. No rule book can give all the behavioural norms, across geographies and time. A strong operating culture will align everyone and ensure consistency of thinking and action across the organisation. Growing up, I do not recall attending any formal session on our family culture nor do I remember any induction session to become part of the family. I learned by observing, imitating and emulating others. When in doubt, I asked my siblings or my mother. Sometimes I was reminded, never to forget it again. As I grew up, the behaviours that are desired, behaviours that are taboo became very clear. The many stories that got told around the kitchen fire, certain rituals we had as a family, rehearsed the heritage and what was important, what was sacred. I knew what I can do and should not do. I experienced it and lived it every day.

As leadership we pay very little attention to shaping the organisation culture. So if you want to be successful in managing people, consciously manage the evolution of your company’s culture. State clearly the foundational values, define the behaviours expected from everyone which are a reflection of the values. Clarify the behaviours that are not tolerated. Review key policies and processes to ensure they are consistent with your values. Be bold and re architect what is inconsistent. Rehearse the stories of greatness. Institute practices that reinforce what is expected and discourage what is not desired. And more importantly demonstrate the behaviour you expect from others in the organisation, every day, every time.

Gradually culture will “manage” people. You manage the culture.

Paint the big picture, skip the little instructions

Organisations spend lot of money and effort to recruit smart, experienced and successful people. Then we spend lot of time trying to manage them, as if they are not capable or knowledgeable. It is a well-known fact, that we give our best when we have the big picture and know how our actions can make a meaningful difference.

When the vision of the organisation is painted with clear and tangible images and a compelling reason to achieve it is clear, it creates the drive and the energy to move forward. I have seen people stay up late, work for less money and give up creature comforts when they knew their effort was contributing to the larger shared vision. People figure out what to do, how to do and when to do. They get creative. Solve problems and make decisions. They deliver results. As long as you excite them with a vision of what is possible and stay out of their way.

If you are a manager, manage the process of creating and communicating a compelling shared vision. People will manage themselves.

Always ask, never tell

Someone who worked with me for a few years, joined another organisation in a very senior position. I met him last year and he introduced me to his team. While introducing, he mentioned that he learned many things from me, but the most important learning was to ask questions. He told his team, that he would come to me with issues which he thought he had no solutions for. Then all           I would do was ask him a bunch of questions. He said it used to be very frustrating at times, but slowly he realised he had to come up with the solutions. And when he really reflected on the issues, he was able to think through the solutions. And they were HIS solutions. He said he is a stronger manger today because of that.

Try that with your children. Ask questions which help them find solutions. As a practice never offer a solution. See what difference it makes.

Few weeks ago while working with a group of very senior executives, my colleague asked them to write down the questions they would ask their team member during the annual appraisal conversation. Many wrote statements they would make. They could not think of the questions. They could only think of what they would say! This group of executives are not unique in that!

Asking questions which are open and not leading, requires a great deal of practice. As managers we are good at telling, poor at asking.

Cultivate the discipline of asking questions and refrain from giving solutions. It is harder than you think. When you ask good questions, people come up with their answers. They are challenged to explore solutions. They demonstrate a greater sense of ownership. They take responsibility.  They manage themselves.

Next time when you have the responsibility to “manage a group of people”, spend time creating a consistent culture, painting a compelling vision and developing the habit of asking meaningful questions. If you do that, and do it well, you can watch the magic happen. You can see the miracles take place. You will never have to “manage people”, ever.

2 thoughts on “The illusion of managing people”

  1. What a wonderful article Cyprian! Who would know about this better than me , who had a privilege of being “managed” by you for a couple of years. I can recollect many instances where you had demonstrated the above and had a gradual but profound impact in shaping me up.

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