My #1 Management Lesson

I used to think I could do most everything best by myself. I was faster, smarter, more vested, and more familiar with the issue at hand. I knew exactly what needed to be done. Working with others just slowed me down.

When I was a software engineer decades ago, there was no doubt this was true. I asked questions until I had the requirements nailed down in detail. I knew my code inside and out. I kept track of hundreds of details and test scenarios in my head and on scraps of paper. When I went it alone, I produced bug-free code. To the best of my knowledge, I never left a bug for the customer to find.

When I became a manager, I continued to do “what got me there.” I asked questions and I learned. Then, just as I did with software, I thought things through with great care and wrote up the definitive solution or explanation that I knew would end all related problems and discussions.

It didn’t work.Young attractive business people - the elite business team

And it took me quite a while to figure out why.

The reason it didn’t work all boils down to one thing: You can’t control the behavior of others.

As a software engineer, I could absolutely control the behavior of earthquake simulators, electron beams, and electrical distribution systems.

Not so with people. People don’t follow the rules of physics.

“You can’t control the behavior of others” may be the most obvious thing you’ve read this week, but I’ve got to tell you that I see evidence daily while working with my clients that leaders have yet to grasp this distinction between people and inanimate objects. Just as I expected people to read and embrace my manifestos with as much care as I took to write them, I witness managers daily trying to control their employees.

  • I see memos, decrees, fanfare, presentations, procedures, and, occasionally, veiled threats.
  • I see exasperated senior leaders resort to unilateral decisions.
  • I see managers developing new rules, forms, and systems that will finally ensure everyone does what they are supposed to do.
  • And I see the natural analytics like me still writing those documents that will bring order to chaos and set everything straight.

Controlling people doesn’t work.

If you even think about controlling people, you will fail to get where you want to go.

If you want people to be supportive and vested in your initiatives and changes, if you want them to behave differently, you must ensure they:

  1. See value in the direction you want them to go
  2. Believe the method for getting there makes sense
  3. Understand and are willing to do their part

Anything less guarantees mediocre to abominable results. If you think otherwise, you should redirect your efforts to controlling machines. Take it from me, it is very satisfying to watch a machine behave exactly as you wanted when you wrote the code!

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