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Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager

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Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager

This is the first in a 7-part series on management best practices, tips and tricks, and what not to do.
Part 2 teaches you how to conduct a good employee performance evaluation.
Part 3 covers getting good job performance from your employees.
Part 4 gives you ways to manage difficult employee conversations.
Part 5 helps you decide whether it’s time to fire someone.
Part 6 shows you how to fire someone properly.
Part 7 talks about how to tell the remaining members of your team that someone has been fired.


Being an employee is easy. You learn your role, how to do it to the boss’s approval, and if you’re so inclined, what you need to do to move up the company ladder. And if you’re a party of one, it’s even easier. You do all the things.

But being a manager is a different beast. You’re not only in charge of your own workplace destiny, but others’ as well. If you work for a large corporation, you might get some compulsory “how to be a manager” training. But if you’re part of a small business or an entrepreneur? You’re likely on your own.

When that’s the case, a lot of people who succeed as employees fail big time as managers. And we’ve heard time and again that employees don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.

New Manager Psych 101

What does it take to succeed as a new manager, or even level up as an experienced manager? The first step is understanding the psychology behind how people relate to one another and how the manager/employee relationship is unlike any other.

In other words, it’s time to get (re)acquainted with your subconscious.

Relationships come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re all based on wants and needs, and each party uses their own system of rewards and punishments to get what they want. Seems straightforward enough, but without training or a perspective on how that applies to the workplace, many new managers try to fit their role into one of 4 predetermined boxes — parent, teacher, friend, or bully — because that’s what they know how to do.

The Parent/Child Relationship
We all start out as babies, which means that we start out with parents. In psychological terms, the relationship works like this: The parent wants performance from the child — good behavior or doing what they ask, for example — and will either reward or punish the child based on whether they deliver that performance. A time out for not listening, for example, or a special gift for meeting academic goals.

Conversely, the child wants security, comfort, and love. And they will either reward with love or punish through either withholding love or not doing what they know their parents want them to do.

This plays out in 2 ways in the workplace, depending on which role the manager picks. When a manager acts like a parent and treats their employees like (often ne’er-do-well) children, the employees feel disempowered and condescended to. You can pick out the managers who think they’re parents when you go into companies that have elaborate “point” systems for their employees, complete with demerits for bad behavior. “+1 for being on time, but -5 for not smiling when the guest entered!”

When the manager acts like a child (which is more common than you’d think) they often feel hurt and sad because their employees don’t give them the love and validation they’re seeking. These are managers who believe their employees should be a source of moral support for them. You know you have one of these managers when they lament about their employees not “believing in the mission” or how they “have so much work to do and employees never help.”

The Teacher/Student Relationship
In teacher/student relationships, the teacher wants the student to learn and show respect. Rewards include praise and validation; punishments can be criticism and judgment. The student in that relationship wants to gain knowledge and engagement, rewarding with understanding and acceptance of the teacher’s authority and punishing with the opposite — dismissal.

Managers who act like teachers will tend to criticize employees as if they were grading them, with responses like, “That’s the wrong answer,” and maybe even keeping track of wrong answers like a gradebook. For the employee, this is the opposite of what they’re seeking — they want help getting it right! Not just to be told they’re wrong. Employees who are regularly criticized will stop trying and disengage.

Friendship
Here, each person shares mutual goals of acceptance and companionship, as well as mutual rewards and punishments. This one is easy to see in our real-life situations: We’re happy when our friends accept us for who we are, and we tend to withdraw and leave friendships behind when we think our friends are judgmental, critical, or unsupportive.

The “friend” manager, instead of turning to actual remediation or support for a poorly performing employee, will “demote” them by ignoring them. From there, the employee will respond as a friend would do — by disengaging. Cue the vicious cycle.

The Bully/Bullied Relationship
A sadly common type of relationship that forms in both the workplace and everyday life is the bully and the bullied. In this type of relationship, the bully demands obedience from the bullied. Bullies reward obedience by ignoring their target and punish a lack of obedience by causing their target pain.

For the bullied, the goal is to identify and fulfill what the bully wants in order to avoid pain, whether psychological or physical. As a result, bully managers think that quiet employees are happy employees, when the reality is that they’re just terrified — much like the target of a schoolyard bully — of having pain inflicted on them.

None of these scenarios constitutes a healthy workplace relationship, and none leads to optimal performance from either person. So, what’s the right relationship for the workplace?

The Manager/Employee Relationship: None of the Above

We all live one or more of these roles every day. But the problem is, a manager isn’t any of them. The manager/employee relationship is, in reality, a fifth model.

The manager wants performance from their employees. They reward with acknowledgement and compensation, and they punish with demotion and remediation. The employee wants recognition and support, and they reward with performance and punish with disengagement.

First jobs aside, most of us started as employees and know how to be managed. But doing the managing isn’t something that happens intuitively, especially if the employee-turned-manager has never done it before, and double-especially if they’re thrown into the job without training.

So, what’s a new manager to do?

First, acknowledge that you’re entering into a new type of relationship and that you have a lot to learn. Second, take all the knowledge you soaked up here and head over to Part 2 of our series for new managers. Understanding why you might fail as a manager is a good start, and the next step is learning what it takes to succeed.

Related content:
Manager Series, Part 2: How to Write an Employee Performance Review
Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need
Manager Series, Part 4: Techniques for Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager Series, Part 5: Reasons to Fire an Employee
Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone
Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired

The “friend” manager, instead of turning to actual remediation or support for a poorly performing employee, will “demote” them by ignoring them.

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