Over the years I've ended up hiring and training a lot of people in their first jobs as a manager, and I always tell them they have two responsibilities: to set clear expectations and to reduce uncertainty for their teams. (I think this is true of anyone in management, but if you're a founder/CEO, you're also responsible for overall vision, strategic direction, etc. but I won't get into that here.)
I was thinking about this yesterday because I've been having the expectations/uncertainty conversation a lot lately with more senior/C-level managers and have had to articulate what I mean, so I figured it might be useful to do it here.
Set Clear Expectations
Nothing sets people up to fail faster than being unclear about what you expect them to achieve in their jobs. One of the mistakes that I see a lot of first-time managers make is failing to do this from the outset. They worry more about building up a good friendly rapport with the people they're managing (which is not unimportant*) and many of them try a little too hard to be liked because they have some guilt about being the authority figure in the relationship, which is often a new experience for them. The downside of this is that if expectations are not articulated in the beginning, there's a good chance that the employees flail because they are trying to please the boss and do the right thing, but don't know what is actually required, or they lose respect for the manager because they assume the manager doesn't actually know what their objectives should be.
How do you determine what expectations you should be articulating? Start with what you'd consider success for the individual employee and then outline success for the team/company as a whole. Quantitative goals are the easiest to figure out, but there are probably some qualitative aspects of how the job gets done that are important and the person working for you needs to know what those are. (If you have trouble defining those things in positive terms, think about what would be dealbreakers for you.)
A corollary to this is that you should never massively oversell a job during the hiring process. If there's a tedious part of the job that's also an absolute requirement of the job, don't gloss over it just to land the candidate, or you may end up with a miserable employee you have to replace sooner rather than later.
I personally don't believe in micromanagement and when I find myself doing it, I always consider it a sign that I hired badly. I like to give people goals that are a bit of a stretch, but not unattainable and let them come up with a plan to get there, which we then review and come to an agreement about what will work and what won't. I try to keep an eye out for when they're getting in the weeds and make sure they're comfortable asking for help, but I give them as much autonomy as they can productively handle because it's the fastest way to learn.
But it should always be apparent to everyone that the company is moving in a specific direction toward a specific goal, and everyone should be able to articulate their role in getting it there with codified benchmarks for whether they're succeeding or failing.
I have a pretty direct management style. This is not a euphemism for "I'm a giant asshole," it just means that if there are problems, I try to confront them head-on and I don't couch an urgent message in qualified language that undermines the urgency of the message. If someone's not meeting expectations, we talk about it as soon as I realize that it's a problem. If I've done a good job of setting expectations in the first place, he or she is never surprised by that conversation.
I also don't believe in qualifying praise. I've had two bosses myself who after I hit a positive hard-to-reach milestone would qualify the acknowledgement with something underminery about how maybe the goal was too easy or I had too many resources. These people were famously bad managers to everyone, so I didn't take it too personally, but it made them seem small and petty, and I don't think that attempting to instill insecurity in your employees in order to motivate them is a good management strategy. If your employees are actually competent and know they're doing a good job, they just lose respect for you. Don't exaggerate praise to the point of suggesting that mediocre work is good work, but err on the side of generosity.
This is something that's a little harder for a lot of people to learn and / or accept. Talented hardworking people become unproductive and demoralized in environments where they don't know what's going on. It makes them feel insecure about their work, even when it's good, and it makes them feel that their jobs are at risk.
In small companies and start ups, there's inherently a lot of uncertainty. Pivots happen all the time in small and big ways. But it's always surprising to me how frequently managers neglect to communicate those changes, or clam up when employees rightly want to know what's going on. Generally, people don't need answers to everything, but when things seem overly opaque or they're getting conflicting messages, managers have to be able to articulate a) what's happening in the moment, and b) give people a reasonable idea of where the company is going. If specific questions can't be answered because decisions haven't been made yet, or there are dependent variables that haven't been determined, "I don't know yet," is a perfectly acceptable answer. But sometimes hard to get senior managers to learn to say "we haven't decided yet, but here's the timeline for the decision and we'll let you know when we decide." This is not weakness; it's honesty. (That said, too much I don't know for too long is also a problem, and probably indicative of an indecisive management team.)
You can't be transparent about absolutely everything, but erring on the side of transparency even when the news is negative builds trust, which is what will take your company through any unexpected rough spots. If your employees think you're withholding information or being cagey, they'll generally assume it's because you're hiding something bad. Your employees aren't looking for a perfect story with a fairy tale ending; they're looking for certainty-about what's happening, the stability of their jobs, and what management thinks about their performance. And they'd rather have someone who gives them hard news in a way that treats them like the adults they are, rather than patronizing them with misdirection and rosy assurances that everything is fine when they can see that it plainly isn't. Trust is more important than likability -- though certainly if everyone hates you, it's very unlikely that they're going to trust you. But you can't tell people falsehoods that they want to hear on the basis that they'll have more benevolent feelings toward you with the idea that it'll make it easier for you to lead. It won't. Your team probably already has an inkling of the truth and if they don't, they'll find out sooner or later. Do not lie to them.**
But uncertainty can also be a problem when things are going extremely well. Anxiety can be a reaction to both very positive and very negative events. If you're expanding and scaling rapidly, the process is going to introduce a lot of chaos and anxiety about how the process is going to be managed. If your employees are getting significant promotions or benefiting in material ways from the company's success (i.e., big windfalls), those things create anxiety too. It's not your job to be anyone's therapist, but you should understand that with all the changes, where the company's going and how you're getting there is an ever-shifting thing. Which means you have to articulate what's happening now and what you anticipate will happen as urgently as you do when things are going badly.
In companies that are small enough, there may be a sense that these things don't need to be articulated because "everyone knows". It's better to assume they do not. I see founders and CEOs do this a lot when mid-level and junior employees don't feel comfortable asking them those questions directly, or they may feel like they're imposing on the senior manager's time. Then they quietly become stressed out, demoralized and unproductive. Communicate iteratively, and often.
* Likability can be an important asset as a manager, but it shouldn't be conflated with respect or trust. We understand this implicitly in our personal relationships-there are people we enjoy being around, but we wouldn't trust with anything we care about, and there are people we think are trustworthy but find personally irritating sometimes. Ideally, all of these things go together, but in messy, complex real life they often don't.
** This may seem obvious, but apparently it isn't: DO NOT LIE TO YOUR EMPLOYEES. I had a job-I won't say which one-where I gave a mid-level manager reporting to me a heads up that I had to deliver a piece of bad news to the staff. He suggested I lie about it since there it wouldn't have been easy for the staff to verify one way or the other. I told him that if I ever caught him doing that I'd fire him. I have no idea if he makes a practice of doing that, but if so, I'd imagine it's going to bite him in the ass sooner or later. And more importantly, it's just the wrong thing to do.
Elizabeth Spiers is a journalist and digital media expert. This post first appeared on her website, www.elizabethspiers.com.