In our twenties and thirties, two things happen to many of us as part of adulting: we become parents and we become bosses, or some kind of team leaders or managers. In some ways these are very different – no team member has ever spat up on me. In others they are very similar – there is always someone wanting your attention; if things are going wrong, fingers are pointed and tears may be shed. Ultimately, you become responsible in a way that you have never been challenged before.
We Manage Based On Our Examples
In both management and parenting, the most common approach taken is to mimic what you’ve seen and experienced. As a parent, you are likely to raise your child as you were raised. Unless you decide and make the effort to take a different approach – perhaps one that is introduced to you by the partner you choose to raise that child with.
As a manager, the same rules apply. We most often manage the way we were managed — unless, of course, we try very hard to manage differently. But, unlike parenting, there is a disincentive to do so. Going against the grain and managing differently in any business can draw unwanted scrutiny — and can in some cases make you the target of criticism. (Social scientists would say managers who try to be take these alternative approaches are violating social norms or refusing to conform.) As such, it’s usually the outcasts, the leaders and the changemakers, not the ones who fit the mold, who are willing to try something new. In the moment, these folks are often criticized. Yet when they are successful, they become the people we so revere, like Edison, Ford and Jobs.
Empathetic Management Creates Outperforming Teams
What you may find surprising is that the managers who are willing to take that risk — to manage based on the needs of their team instead of the needs of themselves — are more effective. Their teams outperform, their turnover is low, and they regularly are asked to take on more responsibility, raising their status in the organization. (Articles abound touting the benefits of people-first strategies, including one last May here in Forbes.) This happens for two key reasons.
First, employees are happier when they like their managers and their teammates. Professor and neuroeconomist Paul Zak argues that liking breeds trust, which increases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for bonding. Employees who like, trust and bond with their teams are much less likely to leave, reducing employee turnover and the costs of replacement, including lost productivity. And, as I’ll explain, they are also more likely to work harder to maintain their own likeability and status in the team.
Second, when employees feel like they are part of a team, they are more likely to adhere to the norms of that team. That’s the mechanism behind conformity, at least according to Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein, co-author of “Nudge,” and, more recently, “Conformity.” The social norms for a team are the “rules” that the manager and the team agree on and may include areas such as timeliness, accountability and the definitions of a working versus finished product. The degree to which the team conforms is a good indicator of how well accepted they feel on your team.
Authoritarian Approaches Create Fear, Decreasing Performance
While managers generally consider part of their job to be enforcing adherence to norms, they may use their authority alone to make demands. Colloquially, we call this the command-and control model. Authority is one of the principles of influence identified by social psychologist and professor Robert Cialdini (as are the aforementioned concepts, liking and social norms). But managing through one’s authority isn’t really authority. It’s using fear to get a result. Real authority, the kind that influences, comes from respect. With real authority, team members turn to you for guidance and help; that’s much more positive, creates a supportive team environment, and results in better outcomes for the team and the firm.
When I first started managing teams, command-and-control was the only approach I had seen modeled. Yet it was also an approach I hated. It treated me like I was a cog in the machine. It lacked humanity. Over the years and through a lot of trial-and-error, I developed a new approach whereby I treated the people who reported to me as people, not as reports. I asked them what they wanted to work on, rather than doling out assignments, for example. I gave my team members my respect, and earned theirs in return. Now, instead of using my authority to demand, I use it to coach and help. My teams became happier, started performing better, and I have consistently been recognized as the manager people beg to work.
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