Prove Me Wrong. No, Really.

I had just been promoted to manager of my engineering group. My group was in the middle of a new product development. In a design review I said my opinion on how to solve one of the challenges we were facing. The guy working on the problem just said ‘Okay, I'll get on it’. What makes this story interesting is that guy and I had what I would call a very productive combative working relationship. We always picked on each other's ideas, pushed back, and made the other prove that we were right. We worked well with each other and the products we designed were better than either of us could have done on our own. I thought I must have proposed a great solution since I didn’t get any push back.

About a week later we were discussing the work and he showed me how my idea didn’t work. And he told me he didn’t think it was going to work from the start, but he did it anyway because I was the manager. Well, that was a gut punch. I had been in my management position for less than a week and I had worked with this guy for almost five years. The only thing that changed was my title. For the price of a one-week delay in our design I learned a very important lesson about management, a manager speaks with much more authority than they realize.

What I did not know was that simply being ‘the boss’ changes the meaning of what you say to many people. The exact same opinion I stated one week earlier would have been treated as such and been up for debate but because my title changed it was interpreted as a command. I believe that teams work best when collaborating, listening to ideas, rejecting ideas, modifying, and building off multiple contributors so I had to learn how to develop that in my own team. For the new managers this is what I did.

Make expectations explicit. During one on one conversations with my team I told them each that if they thought I was wrong or making a mistake I expected them to tell me. I did not just want them to, I made it an expectation of doing their job correctly.

Make your team comfortable voicing concerns. Make sure that your team believes they are heard and understood. Even if the idea should be dismissed out of hand, engage in some discussion on it. Most of the time the team member will talk themselves out of their idea if it is a bad one, but the important part is that they said no, not you. Thank them for speaking up. Each person on your team is different so you need to know them and how they are going to react.

Check your Ego. This goes hand in hand with making your team comfortable. As a contributor I was free to passionately (but professionally) defend my position. I learned that I needed to dial my passion back to about 75% of what it was before to avoid shutting people up. You still need to defend your ideas if you believe in them, but just be very careful how you do it. Also, don’t be the first to speak, wait and see what others think first. If everyone just looks at you, pick the quiet person and ask what they think.