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The Fine Art of Managing Managers: A Story

[Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash]

I was working some time back with a woman who had been appointed to an Operations Manager role in a tech company. She was having a frustrating time of things. She had been brought in from out of town, and amongst the junior managers now under her charge was a man who had expected—and had been expected—to be given the Operations Manager role.

From her first day on site, the vibes were bad. She had the feeling that not only this fellow but the other junior managers too viewed her as ‘parachuted in’. Any directions she gave were met with sullen resentment. Any changes she pushed were looked at askance. She knew (thanks to one employee) that she was being bitched about behind her back. On one occasion, there was even a stand-off of sorts between her and the disappointed junior manager in front of other employees: she had asked him an innocuous question about whether a certain task had been carried out, and he had told her to ‘back off’ and stop micromanaging him and ‘treating [him] like an eejit’.

The whole situation she found stressful, to the point where she had started second-guessing herself as a talented logistical manager and hesitating to offer any directive input for fear of making things worse. She didn’t want to escalate the problem by going to upper-management (which she would have been well within her rights to do), but she knew the situation was unsustainable going forward. She was at the ‘Either he goes or I go’ point.

  • Here’s how we got a handle on things. I invited her to change her point of view, to reframe the matter: ‘For the man passed over for the Operations Manager position, you represent the disappointment of his hopes. He was telling himself a certain story of career progression, and then you came in and messed that story up. His response has been very unprofessional, but very human. You can change the dynamic by being both professional and human. Be big enough to start with with his story.’

A month later, and relations with the junior manager were not just good but brilliant. She had solved the problem not by confrontation but by indirect means.

  • She had sat down with him one-to-one and asked him strategy-related questions that showed she respected him as an experienced member of the team. She sought his input and his insight. At first he responded guardedly, but, as the days went on, he thawed. She treated him more and more as an invaluable resource, a crucial ally in the project of maintaining and improving operations. She was quick to share credit for achievements (his and the other junior managers’), and made a point of making complimentary remarks when anyone from upper management visited.

This was not a matter of rewarding bad behaviour, but of understanding the psychology behind it.

For at the human heart of this was a hard-working man who had taken very personally the decision of management not to give him the post he had been hoping for after long years’ service. He felt humiliated, rejected, dissed. My Operations Manager client deployed considerable emotional intelligence in getting him to uncouple her from the decision not to promote him. He now no longer saw her as having personally and coldly stolen his hopes of being Operations Manager. While he still naturally wished he had got the job, he now saw her as someone who wished only good things for him (which she sincerely did) and was actually an ally in the slightly longer career-progression game he was now having to play.

She had, in short, shown him that this was not a zero-sum game. On the longer view, her story and his were not in competition. By the time of our last session, she was even giving him advice on how to optimise his chances for promotion next time around.

I think a lot about this woman and what she achieved. There’s a lot packed into her story.

Those whose job it is to manage managers are a much-neglected group. They have a uniquely tricky task, requiring a delicate balance to be struck between exerting their authority to ensure that operations run smoothly and winning the trust and loyalty of their managers. When this balance is not struck, the results can be deeply damaging all the way up and down the employee chain.

In my next blog post, I will explore this topic a little further.

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