Top lesson I learnt from my manager

It is a big fortune for someone to have a good manager. I have double the fortune, since I’m having 2 good managers. One is my immediate report, another is at higher level, but spending a lot of time mentoring me.

The best thing about good managers is learning. You can learn in multiple ways, but particularly in this area of management, observing what your managers say and do, and later see the results, is fascinating, and arguably the best way to learn.

I learnt a lot from my 2 managers, and I can write tens of posts about them and how they are coaching team and building the platforms inside organization to unleash team’s power. But on top of all lessons is just one thing which sticks to my mind and to me, no other lessons can beat it.

In one of team meetings whose purposes were to explaining the strategies of organization and direction and structure of the the engineering department, here is how my (high level) manager defined Engineering Manager role:

Engineering Manager is the servant leader of the team. When the team is successful, it is because of the team – because the team did it. When the team fails, it is because of the engineering manager – because he lets it happen.

This is concise and powerful. It communicates the most fundamental qualities a manager (or leader) needs to have. He needs to be able to perform well without verbal recognition from his team.

CEO is lonely

CEO is lonely

A manager is lonely – despite the fact that he is surrounded by people. The higher his level is, the more likely that he feels more lonely. Many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation once they take on the top job. Middle-level managers probably feel less lonely, but they faces more difficulties on other types of challenges. They feel lonely mostly because they don’t often receive sufficent verbal recognition from team, or even none. What they receive plenty, in the name of “feedback”, is most of the time negative – people come to managers when they feel unhappy or they see problems under/related to the latter’s authority and they tell the latter because they expect some kind of actions or intervention. Rarely an employee comes to his manager and just says “Bill, you have done this and it is an excellent job”. In a not-as-rare circumstances, employees may give verbal recognition to their managers in open ceremonies (e.g. townhall) but this is kind of recognition, in my opinion, is trivial since everyone exchange recognition to everyone they bump into, almost like a courtesy.

It is interesting to understand why it is so difficult for an employee to give verbal recognition to their managers. First and formost, they never think they should, which is rooted from an implicit understanding that it is the job of people of higher level to recognize their subordinates, not the other way around. Why? Because this is almost an implicit understanding of people since they were children. Who said “Bill, good job”? Teachers. Who said “Bill, well done”? His parents. Did they teach children to say, in an ordinary context, “Dad, well done”? Probably, but rarely. How about “Mrs. Smith? You have done a good job in this learning session”? I doubt it. I highlighted the word “ordinary” because I want to focus on only just-another-day days, rather than Mother day, Father day, Teacher day – the events created specifically for the purpose of recognizing the mothers, the fathers and the teachers. So, in the enterpise context, what happen if an employee comes to his manager and praise him? The employee feels awkward because doing so makes him look like a teacher of that manager! And what if the manager interpretes it in that way? The uncertainty pushes the employee back to the safe position – doing nothing rather than risking prasing his manager. But wait, why he risks to tell his manager negative feedback? Firstly, he feels it is his duty to “make things better”. Secondly, the annoy of the problems he is facing overwhelm the feeling of uncertainty. And thirdly, guess what? Since childhood they asked for “people of higher level” i.e. their teachers and parents’ helps all the time and it is commonly accepted!

There are more reasons why it is difficult for employees to give verbal recognition to their managers. They might be unaware of the things their managers are doing. The managers look busy all the time and taking even some minutes from him for “such unimportant thing” seems a waste of the time for the manager. While the second and third reasons are common, I would argue that the first reason I mentioned is the formost barrier stopping employees to proceed further, since this is the cognitive process happening without people realizing it.

Understand this is important to managers to have less Dukkha in their lives (in simple words, a less unhappy life 🙂 ). Good managers don’t feel disappointed with their team for not verbally recognizing him. Bad managers feel disappointed. Good managers understand feedback is healthy and important and give out plenty. Bad managers keep their employees in the dark. Good managers balance positive and negative feedback, and want the same for everyone, in every directions, top-down, bottom-up, peer-to-peer. Bad managers practice solely top-down feedback. Bad managers work for recognition from the boss. Good managers work extra to make recognition and feedback happen for everyone, by identifying impediments and removing them. If I could, I would add those to @rabashani‘s “Good engineering manager, bad engineering manager”.

Working with good managers and watch them behaving in difficult situations is interesting. Not because that you want to see managers suffer, but you learn so many things seeing them handle situations, and you can reflect on their values and principles and how these hidden elements are guiding our managers. Once again, I heard my manager said this:

Engineering Manager is the servant leader of the team. When the team is successful, it is because of the team – because the team did it. When the team fails, it is because of the engineering manager – because he lets it happen.

And I see my other manager does it. It is an amazing thing to see in my professional life.

How do you think of my views? What do you think managers could do to make employees more open to give verbal recognition, to not only managers, but also their peers? Let me know in the comments :).

Manager can be not-lonely

Manager can be not-lonely

P/S: There are many ways to interpret the saying, and “servant leader” word itself is interesting. I have another post about it – servant leaders and “flip your organization hierarchy upside down”.




Tung Dao

Tung is a Msc. in IT Management from University College Dublin. Tung is currently working in Astro Bhd as Scrum Master.