The wise manager

A look at the positive traits a good manager should possess

One of the easiest, and most effective, ways to examine the features that make up a good manager is to invent one who has all the positive traits. Let’s call her She Patel.

She has thought through her approach to leading an organization, refines what she does, how it’s done and evaluates herself against this approach. She realizes she is not charismatic — few people are — but believes she can be a very good leader if leadership is approached strategically.

She starts with two assumptions reflecting human nature:

•Employees are selfish. They will perform based on self-interest. She appreciates altruism in others but recognizes no organization operates on altruism alone. She knows employees will behave in accordance with the reward system created by the organization and its environment. By extension, workers have a stake in constructing, maintaining and improving the reward system.

•Employees prefer working within a context of strong ethics.

Within these assumptions, she bases her leadership on four basic characteristics:


•effective dialogue;

•effective resource support; and


She acts in accordance with these characteristics, expects workers to do the same and supports them in achieving high levels of these characteristics.

Patel knows that she cannot make others trust her, but can demonstrate that she is worthy of trust from her subordinates:

•Her actions demonstrate commitment to the organization’s mission. Employees distrust managers who profess to accept the mission but do not act in accordance with it.

•She knows organizations must find a balance between destructive pessimism and unwarranted hope. She does not mislead staff through false optimism and faces potentially demoralizing organizational challenges by shifting discussion and action, at the right times, from wallowing in the problem to searching for the solution. But she knows many people need some “whine time” before they move on to solutions.

•She never makes a commitment to a worker she does not believe she can fulfil. If she agrees to meet with an employee about a project on Tuesday for one hour she holds the meeting on Tuesday (not Friday), and for one hour (not 20 minutes).

•She does not forget a commitment. If she tells an employee, “I like your idea about developing more effective client support — let’s talk about it in more detail,” she sets a time for the discussion.

•When she cannot fulfil a commitment, she tells the employee immediately and explains why it cannot be fulfilled. If failed commitments become common, there is something wrong with the way the commitments are made.

•She is clear about the criteria used to gauge the performance of those who report to her. She realizes it erodes trust when workers believe they are judged on criteria that have not been made clear to them.

•To gain the trust of others, she must trust others. She rarely overrules a decision made by an employee entrusted with making the decision. She accepts that an employee sometimes does things differently than she would, but knows her way is not the only way. She avoids nitpicking and insistence on doing it her way because it erodes credibility, curbs creativity and ruins morale.

•She is not all-knowing and does not pretend to be. In areas where she is weak she ensures she, and the organization, have access to resources to cover the areas of weakness.

She insists on effective dialogue:

•She knows dialogue is two-way communication, not a pretext for the manager to lecture the employee.

•She knows dialogue is the art of listening as well as speaking and it is important to be seen to be listening. She feeds back to employees what she believes she has heard from them to make sure it is interpreted correctly. She records, in a few well chosen words, what she believes to be the outcome of important discussions so she can verify her understanding with her employees.

•She gives priority to two kinds of conversation: formal dialogue with those who directly report to her; and informal dialogue with anyone in the organization. But she never allows this to degenerate into snitch sessions from people trying to circumvent managers to get to the head boss. She makes sure dialogue time is seen as the core of organizational functioning, not something squeezed into cracks between more important activities.

•She knows employees communicate in different ways. She adjusts her methods of dialogue to suit the unique ways others communicate as much as possible. She accepts emotional context in dialogue when an employee has strong feelings. She refuses, however, to accept passive-aggressive, overly obscure or devious communications.

•She refuses to take the world on her shoulders by engaging in dialogue in which the employee does all the complaining and the manager does all the solving. When staff raise a concern, her first question will be, “How do you suggest we solve it?” She will not accept proposed solutions that absolve employees of responsibility for the solution.

•She knows her organization is not a democracy. She does not flaunt her authority but she delineates those areas in which the opinions of staff are advice she will consider but not necessarily adopt.

She also ensures that effective resource support pervades the organization:

•She does not expect employees to deliver unless they have the necessary resources.

•She does not always know what resources are needed for each task. She negotiates with employees to identify resources they need but says, “enough is enough,” if demands are too great.

•She does not expect employees to do the impossible. She expects them to stretch themselves to do the desirable but improbable through dedication and ingenuity. When this occurs she recognizes employee achievements immediately and visibly, through the reward method that works best for the employee within the limits of the “reward levers” available to her.

•She knows annual performance reviews are generate anxiety and many leaders deal with this by not conducting evaluations or by doing them poorly. She calls the process “performance support”, not performance evaluation and uses simple performance support tools after discussion with employees. She uses the tools within the context of two-way dialogue in which both parties express views on how each has supported the other, and does not use the tools to hide from frank dialogue. If tools obscure more than they reveal, she adopts better ones.

•If an employee underperforms, she takes immediate action scaled to the degree of the problematic performance after discussion with the employee. She does not hoard grievances to spring them on the employee during the annual performance review or as a preamble to termination.

•She will fire employees when other reasonable, prudent methods of performance influence have failed. She does this with knowledge of the legal implications of termination and with sensitivity to the fact the firings are traumatic for employees. But when the choice is between sparing an employee’s feelings and protecting clients or other staff, she opts for protection.

•She restricts her span of support (often called “span of control” – the number of people she directly supervises) to no more than 10 people. She ensures the span of support of managers who report to her does not exceed 10. Since supervising knowledge workers in complex environments is more intense than supervising assembly line workers, she aims for spans of support closer to six than to 10.

She ensures fairness characterizes her performance:

•She knows the difference between treating employees fairly and treating them identically. Since people are individuals, the ways they are treated may differ as long as all ways are fair. For instance one employee may like to be rewarded for good work through public recognition while another may find public recognition embarrassing but may value private recognition.

•Because she sometimes works evenings and weekends, she treats herself fairly by taking time off during the regular work week. But she knows the “symbolism of presence.” Fridays, for instance, are always stressful for her staff and she is always on-site on Fridays.

•She knows all organizations have rumour mills and favouritism and scapegoating are prime topics for rumour and gossip. She knows there will be people in the organization she likes and dislikes based on factors unrelated to performance. She may like an employee who shares a hobby or comes from the same hometown. She may dislike someone else’s appearance or find their voice grating. Never, however, can these likes and dislikes be seen to influence the way she treats an employee. She cannot stop rumours and gossip, but she refrains from fueling them.

•She understands no manager can expect respect and courtesy if she does not give respect and courtesy. She avoids embarrassing an employee in front of others. On contentious issues she does not judge without listening to employees’ perspectives. She expects the same in return.

John Butler, a regular contributor to Canadian HR Reporter, is president of the Agora Group, a Markham, Ont.-based HR and health care management consulting firm. He can be reached at (905) 294-9762.

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