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In my last post I told the story of how an Operations Manager solved a tricky situation with one of her junior managers. He had been passed over for the position she had got, and resented it (and her) strongly. Instead of allowing the situation to spiral out of control, she solved it with grace and empathy.

Here, flowing from her story, are three principles for managing managers effectively.


The woman in the above story went from resenting the junior manager’s resentment to understanding the story he was telling himself. She showed a basic empathy that is too often forgotten in the drive to assert and maintain authority.

If you are a manager of managers, then assume that every single one of your direct reports sees themselves as the main character in their own movie.

If you want to elicit loyalty and effective performance from them—which will of couse include their role of eliciting those things from their own subordinates—then you must stop and consider each of your direct reports as an individual. An individual with

· a backstory

· aspirations for their own career

· a unique personality.

They are the person they bring into work every day, and a lot will depend on how successfully you make them feel recognised. No, I don’t mean pandering to high-maintenance or unacceptable behaviour. I mean seeing how it is they want to be seen.

If you are secure in yourself, and in your position of authority, you will feel no need to assert your own ego’s need for recognition. If you develop the moral imagination to tune in to the personality of each of your direct reports, you will encourage them to develop their own talents.


By ‘story’ here I don’t mean fiction! I mean a narrative framing that makes your direct reports understand and be supportive of the goals it is your job to see achieved. How can you expect them to be enthusiastic about your bigger-picture goals if you haven’t taken the time to show them the bigger picture?

The Germans have a nice word for this: Überblick (which translates as ‘overview’ or, more loosely, ‘map’). If you want your junior managers to be demotivated, deprive them of the Überblick by giving them the message that the reason they must see to it that Task X is successfully implemented is simply and solely that you have ordained that Task X must be successfully implemented. If you want them on side, give them the damn Überblick. They’re not corporate spies, for heaven’s sake!

You have nothing to lose by laying out the results you have been tasked with achieving, and giving them the message that you are banking on their excellence.

Do this right, and you will have achieved something brilliant: the alignment of your story with theirs.

A bad manager-of-managers tries to get results by subjecting their direct reports to a power trip; a good one exerts not their own ego but their desire for genuine team effort.

A bad manager-of-managers is known for their ego; a good one for their sincere faith in the abilities of their direct reports.


This is the basic quid pro quo, folks. If you want to be treated with respect and grace, then you simply must model that behaviour. Do not, whatever you do, allow your own behaviour to be dictated to by what you perceive as poor or undermining behaviour in others—whether subordinate or senior to yourself.

We’re talking real world here, so let’s take an uncomfortably real scenario: you have just had a tough encounter with a higher-upper in the company or organisation. Do not, under any circumstances, allow the unpleasantness of this infect your interactions with your own direct reports. Your unpleasant experience is neither their fault nor their problem. If you are unhappy with how you have been treated, do not take it out on your subordinates. It is 100% on you to address the problem—at the right level. Compartmentalising in a case like this really is Professionalism 101.

Avoid also the (very human) temptation to bitch about your higher-uppers to your direct reports. Yes, it will feel good, and will enhance a certain Us-Vs.-Them team spirit. But it is unprofessional—and, in the behaviour it is modelling, dangerous to your own authority.

As for poor behaviour from a direct report, you are under no obligation to pretend that your workplace is anything other than a hierarchical place. However, the direct exertion of authority, up to and including reporting of poor behaviour to upper management, should be a last not a first resort. A good manager-of-managers can solve this issue locally. A very good manager-of-managers can do it without making the junior manager lose face.

Always—always—avoid taking a junior manager to task in front of others. One-to-one is the way to go.


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