I have been managing for 15 years, almost since the beginning of my professional career. I thought I had done decently well, without having been brilliant but without having been catastrophic either.
And yet, I realized recently that I had not been a good manager.
How ? In mid-2020, I left my last management position (CPO at ManoMano) with the idea of creating a company whose mission would revolve around fulfillment at work. 90% of employees are not engaged in their work (Gallup), I found this dramatic reality, both on a human and economic level.
Before starting, I did something that I had never had time to do in my career: I took the time to really train myself: NLP, CNV, Liberating Structures, Lean… It was at both a personal need and a way to begin the transition to my new project.
These trainings acted like an electric shock and made me realize that I had not been a good manager.
I then sought to understand how I had been able to live 15 years in such denial. By digging, I finally identified two fundamental reasons that cultivated my mediocrity in terms of management:
1/ I didn’t realize that I could have been a much better manager
2/ I could hardly have improved even knowing it, because I did not have the tools to manage well (I did not know them) and the business world does not ease good managerial practices.
Following the discussions I had around my new project (WILL) with employees, managers or leaders, I understood that I was far from being the only one. A sentence often came up: “I would like to be a better manager”, followed by a “but I don’t know how” or a “but I can’t”.
This problem affects a massive population: the majority of managers. They themselves have an impact on an even more massive population: their teams.
It became obvious to me that WILL had to try to offer a solution to these deprived managers. It has taken the form of a method that is both simple and powerful to enable them to identify their problems or those of their collaborators and to solve them effectively.
In this article, I will tell you the story of a bad manager who did not realize it: mine.
I hope that it will allow the people I have managed to understand, a posteriori, some of my behaviors. That it will allow other managers to “remove guilt”: even if we want to do well, management is terribly complicated.
I also want to convey a message of optimism: there is no fatality and there are many solutions to do better!
The article will be structured around two parts:
Part 1: How I could have been a bad manager without realizing it
Part 2 : How I could have done better by starting from practical cases drawn from my experience. This part will thus offer the reader a first training material.
Good reading !
Part 1: How I have been a bad manager without realizing it
Problem #1: I didn’t realize I was a bad manager
1a/ I was unconsciously incompetent
The first stage of learning for Maslow is to be “unconsciously incompetent”. In other words, not knowing that you are doing things wrong. This was exactly my case as a manager. Not that I was pretentious, arrogant or that I didn’t make any effort to improve. Simply, I was not aware that it was possible to be such a better manager.
1b/ I didn’t see the models around me
I have never been surrounded by exceptional managers who could have made me aware of all the progress I had to make. Or more likely, I was, but I didn’t see them, victim of such a French tropism to focus on the negative. I especially saw the bad managers against whom it was reassuring to compare myself. I was leveling myself down. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Exceptionally, I managed to distinguish in a manager of my entourage a quality that was really foreign to me and that made me think (vulnerability for example, thank you Christine). It was rare.
1c/ I couldn’t hear honest feedback
To be able to improve, you also have to have the right feedback and be able to hear it when it finally arrives.
Genuine feedback is rare. The fundamental reason in my eyes is the hierarchical relationship that exists between the manager and his direct reports. It creates an infantilizing relationship: the managee-child does not dare to displease his manager-parent for fear of being punished (bonus canceled or promotion refused). The bad manager that I was also failed to create the conditions for a relationship of trust allowing those managed to express authentic feedback.
Fortunately, honest feedback can happen. The problem is that they are generally provided in stressful situations (dismissal, conflict, etc.) which make them less audible to the manager. He will quickly convince himself that the problem came from the collaborator whose feedback will necessarily be minimized. Besides, don’t those who are still in the team give him good feedback?
The circle is then closed since the employees still in place will dare even less to be authentic in their feedback.
1d/ I thought I was training enough
Even if I was unconsciously incompetent, I was still looking to improve my managerial practice because “we can always do better”. Books were my main resource to improve myself: From Good to Great (the chapter on the levels of leadership), High Output Management by Andy Grove, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek to name a few. These books are excellent and nourished my reflection on my role as a manager. But they did not answer the question “how”? In Five Dysfunctions of a team, Patrick Lencioni states that the first quality for a team to work well is “trust”: you have to be able to say things to each other. Even being totally aligned, the question that comes next is: “How to say things to each other without it degenerating into conflicts?”.
I also did some training. Often in a format where you spend 2 days in a room with a trainer. You come out with a few ideas, then you go back to your daily life as managers and the training is soon only a distant memory (it is moreover to fight against this phenomenon that the WILL Academy extends over 10 weeks with weekly sessions of 1h30).
I was improving a little, but I was still far from the mark… Because even if I became aware of some of my limits, I did not have the right tools to go further and the company in general did not facilitate the implementation place of a truly effective managerial practice.
Problem n°2: my environment did not help me to be a good manager
2a/ The limiting beliefs of the business world
Most companies have a strong focus on performance. There is a deeply rooted belief that opposes human management to management based on performance. On the one hand, the “nice” managers whose teams are fulfilled but not necessarily very efficient, on the other the courageous and demanding managers whose teams have a high level of performance often at the cost of great suffering.
This second category of managers is capable of parting with an underperforming employee, an act that would be both necessary for the smooth running of the company — a form of natural selection — and courageous on the part of these managers who know how to take responsibility.
With hindsight, I now tell myself that dismissing an employee partly amounts to making him assume his inability as a manager to coach him well or as a company to put him in the right place. If we go back even further, the company’s inability to recruit well, either because it oversold itself or because it misidentified the candidate (perhaps also taken by the urgency to recruit).
2b/ Lack of time
Management is a time-consuming task whose impact is measured over a long time scale. Suffice to say that in a context where employees spend an average of 18 months in the company (tech world), this is not necessarily the task that an effective leader will prioritize.
Two phenomena have also contributed to tightening time for managers.
First of all, a desire to make management more horizontal, and therefore to give more direct reports to each manager. Eight direct reports has thus become a standard in a certain number of companies. But what is the “good” time to devote to a direct report? Probably 0.5 to 1J per week. So if you manage 8 people, this is already almost full-time, even if you spend the minimum required there…
In parallel with the increase in the number of direct reports, the manager’s “individual contributor” load has decreased slightly. Having a finite time, the manager will therefore sacrifice some of his management tasks (coaching, setting objectives, etc.) in order to be able to accomplish his tasks as an individual contributor.
The lack of time has a final extremely negative impact: it often prevents managers from training properly. Most of the training that would be really relevant for management lasts from several days to several dozen days. For example, training to become a coach lasts 40D. In the company’s time frame, it’s far too long for the manager to even consider doing them.
Moreover, most of the people in the private sector who attend these trainings are employees in retraining or between two positions. Very few students are current managers.
2c/ The lack of tools to solve recurring problems
The problem is that by depriving themselves of these long training courses, managers are missing out on valuable tools… So what do managers do? The most courageous and invested tinker with their own tools after reading a blog article or consulting a colleague who is not always more expert than them.
The result is rarely up to expectations. We end up thinking that the right tools do not exist, otherwise we would have been taught them! It wasn’t until I started all these longer trainings, for example NLP, that I discovered that there were powerful tools that solved most of the problems I had encountered!
It was both a relief but also a huge frustration. I could have avoided a lot of suffering by having these tools during my career. The WILL method compiles and simplifies all these exercises. It makes them accessible to current managers. Most of the students at WILL Academy experience the same feeling upon discovering them: relief and frustration. Without having the pretension to equal each of the formations mentioned, the WA has the great merit of opening a new horizon to managers who are often disillusioned. Once the seed is planted, they are free to continue their exploration by going to more advanced training.
Part 2: How could I have done better? Practical cases !
In the second part of this article, I would like to come back to a certain number of concrete situations drawn from my career in order to illustrate the first part of the article.
This work of introspection has been extremely valuable. I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to do this if I hadn’t worked on the development of the WILL method and hosted many WILL Academy promotions.
I decided to base myself on the approach of the method to organize the course of the different cases. Indeed the method has categorized the most recurring problems on 4 overlapping layers which are, from the most external to the most internal: Me and myself (knowing each other, getting organized), Me and my colleagues (communicating, collaborate), Me and my management (revealing, strengthening) and Me my company (coherence, subsidiarity). There is no point in addressing the problems of the inner layers until the problems of the upper layers have been solved.
The WILL method is aimed primarily at employees, used by a manager it would become “My managed themselves”, “My managed and their colleagues”, “My managed and me”, “My managed and the company”.
Each time, I will present the context, then why despite good intentions I was a bad manager and finally how I could have done better by relying on exercises from the WILL method.
It will also allow the reader to participate by thinking about how they would have approached the problem at the end of the “context” part.
My managed themselves
Let’s start with the “My managed people themselves” layer, in other words get to know them well to put them in the right place and help them organize themselves so that they work on what is important (for them and/or the ‘company).
Case n°1: better listen to my managers
What was the context? When I took up my position at ManoMano, I told myself that I had to start by getting to know my future direct reports well. This is clearly something that I had not taken enough time to do in my previous position at Artefact. The intention was clearly good: internally I told myself that I was becoming a better manager as my experiences progressed. So I took 1 hour slots with each of them even before officially taking up my position.
Why was I still a bad manager? I didn’t really listen to them. I didn’t do it on purpose of course! But I was not in an active listening posture. I lacked presence because when they spoke to me, I thought about what I was going to answer them rather than really listening to them. I was projecting my own map of the world (my desires, my beliefs) onto what they were telling me rather than trying to put myself in their shoes and understand how they really felt. By wanting to provide them with solutions too quickly, I also cut the thread of their thoughts, which deprived me of very valuable information.
How could I have done better? Clearly by adopting an active listening posture as described in card #11 of the WILL method, based on blanks and word-for-word reformulations, in order to really understand the other. At first, we mistakenly think that it will take longer, but the quality of the relationship and the information collected makes this objection completely invalid!
Case n°2: better capitalize on the strengths of my managers
What was the context? Following a reorganization, one of the people in the team has to leave the management position she held until now. She had taken on this position at a very young age, without having really been in the position of an “individual contributor” (IC) herself in the job of the people she managed. I tell myself that this reorganization offers her a unique chance to immerse herself as an IC in the job, and that by coaching her effectively, she will very quickly validate this stage before becoming an -even better- manager again, as soon as the team reaches a new critical size.
Why was I still a bad manager? Firstly because I projected one of my own beliefs, that to be a good manager you must necessarily have been an IC yourself on the managed position. Then because by my enthusiasm, I very probably influenced the person who perhaps did not dare to tell me that it was not a good idea. And finally, because the person clearly had multiple qualities to be an excellent manager, perhaps less to be an IC in this specific job. So I put her in an uncomfortable situation on a personal level and “inefficient” on a professional level for the company because she brought less value as an IC than as a manager. In particular, I deprived myself of his incredible leadership qualities.
How could I have done better? First by stopping projecting my map of the world to me on others. Then, if I had taken the time to really become aware of the strengths of the managed (card #1 of the WILL method), I would have realized that this mobility was probably the worst choice I could make. I could also have used the “Pyramid of Logical Levels” (card #3 of the method) to unequivocally highlight how this new position was not aligned with any of the laders, be it behaviors, abilities, values or even the role… Admittedly, I would then have had to rack my brains to find a position where the person could capitalize much more on their qualities. The worst thing for me is that this position opened a few months later. I wanted so much to make the person who became an IC successful that I was not even able to think of her and offer it to her. She had to suggest it to me. The change was striking, she immediately regained her energy and serenity because she could once again express her qualities. Many employees who would not have had the courage and/or the lucidity of this person would have remained in this mess.
My managed and their colleagues
Now let’s move on to layer 2 of the WILL method. It is a question of considering the relations between the managed and their colleagues in the broad sense. The two sub-layers are communicating and collaborating with the objective of creating rich relationships (for them and for the company).
Case n°3: better manage conflicts
What was the context? Tensions can be high in a “tech” company between the business teams who need certain functionalities to do their job better and the technical teams whose limited resources do not allow them to respond to all these requests. The Product team, which partly manages the roadmap, naturally finds itself at the heart of these tensions. Communication problems, even conflicts with other teams, are among the recurring problems. But I never knew how to manage these conflicts effectively. Not that I was avoiding them, but other than suggesting the teams talk to each other and tell each other things rather than brood over their frustrations, I had no silver bullet. Sometimes it worked, but often the exchanges soured. In the end I eventually ended up going to see my alter-ego from ExCom who passed the message down to their teams. Things would improve for a while, but often conflicts would resurface.
Why was I still a bad manager? In this situation, I was not “unconsciously incompetent” but “consciously incompetent”: I was well aware that I was solving problems badly… However, I had no idea how to do better. By intervening directly with my alter-ego at the ExCom, I fed the infantilizing relationship that I described in the first part, of the type “Dad, my brother is hitting me, can you tell him to stop?”. And the father to say “Stop typing it” before the episode starts again the next day. This way of doing things removed the last remnants of free will from the teams that were disengaging from the resolution of the conflict. Well, that didn’t solve the root problem…
How could I have done better? Several powerful tools exist to manage conflicts without involving the “leader” as a mediator. If it is a conflict between individuals, the Positions of perception (exercise #9) allow the person in conflict to fictitiously address his message to the recipient and then to feel the feelings of the latter to better formulate his message. . On a daily basis, self-empathy and NVC (exercise #10) also make it possible to dispassionate the discourse and to purify it of all hidden judgments and evaluations, sources of conflict. Finally, if the conflict concerns two teams, why not use the absurd to renew the dialogue and free the floor with a TRIZ? (exercise #32)
Unleash the potential of its managed
Let’s now look at the layer dedicated specifically to management. The challenge is to succeed in creating a relationship of trust despite the hierarchical relationship that exists between the manager and his employees and to allow them to express their full potential.
Case n°4: reinforce the positive
What was the context? I remember an employee who had joined me on a very important consulting mission. We didn’t have much time to deal with a complex subject. We had to be efficient. The collaborator was still relatively junior. She was voluntary but her deliverables were not up to my quality standards. I wanted to help her improve. I regularly gave her feedback so that she corrected her mistakes. I felt that was my role as a manager. As I traveled a lot, most of this feedback was done through asynchronous comments. I was aware that this mission was difficult for her, but at least she would be formative.
Why was I still a bad manager? Although I wanted to help him, in reality I was pushing her down. My feedback focused exclusively on what was wrong. I made her gradually lose all self-confidence. The more it went, the more her stress increased while preventing her from seeking the resources within her that could have helped her. Rather than getting out of this vicious circle (stress begets stress), too absorbed by the mission and convinced of doing well, I continued to feed it. I now realize that I measured my contribution as a manager by the number of feedbacks given, not by the progress made or the level of well-being of the employee. Brilliant in her previous company, this collaborator had an average career with us. We had concluded that she had not adapted when we should have told ourselves that we had not been able to highlight her qualities…
How could I have done better? When an employee is in difficulty (and even when he is not), rather than pushing them down with areas for improvement which, by dint of accumulating, become inactionable and demoralizing, it would be more effective to reinforce what they do well and to limit oneself to a single area of improvement. This is the stimulating feedback exercise (exercise #22). This forces the manager to focus on the most important point. This brings clarity to the collaborator who knows the point they have to work on. This allows time to process it before moving on to the next one. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. A logical level pyramid (exercise #3) could also help the manager understand where the problem lies. If it is a problem of behaviors, rather than asking him to do differently, go up a level and train them (abilities). If it is an ability problem, make sure there is no problem with values or beliefs (e.g. “I have always been told that I am not rigorous ”) … If it’s at the level of values, go back to the role that determines everything else (eg if I see myself as a creative when I’m asked to do project management, it’s going to get stuck) .
Managed with their company
For this last layer, we find the problems seen previously but at a systemic level, that of the company: for example the employee is clear with their motivation levers but they are different from the values of the company. The collaborator communicates better with each person but two teams are cold…
Case n°5: embodying the values
What was the context? The values of the company were the same since its creation. But the business had grown. Should the values change? Adapt? With the ExCom, we embarked on a long process of redefining values, culminating in the sharing of updated values with the entire company.
Why was I still a bad manager? As usual, the intention was good. Take the time to think about values, specify them for employees. But the result was more than mixed. In fact, nothing really changed, even though we had spent a considerable amount of time there. In talking to employees, they admitted to me that they had found the event we had organized “nice” but that they did not feel committed. And how can you blame them? They had been served a list of values that could resonate but to which they had not contributed… An extremely “top-down” approach even if that was not the initial intention, more a way of doing things imposed by the difficulty of get several hundred people to contribute without mobilizing them for hours and hours…
How could I have done better? Already, the Liberating Structures and in particular the 1–2–4-All (exercice #13) provide an effective solution to make dozens of people think simultaneously. Then the exercise “The Revealer” (exercise #28) which uses Appreciative Inquiry offers an extremely powerful methodology to make each employee contribute and engage. They are asked to list the events where they felt most proud to belong to their company before identifying the values behind them. This avoids the “above ground” effect that the definition of these values can cause in a room and in a small group.
Being a good manager is hard! Let’s stop wanting to be perfect, let’s recognize our limits and above all take the time to train ourselves to become one. Because there are effective solutions to move towards what surely constitutes the ideal model, that of manager-coach.
This requires a deep questioning on the part of the managers, in particular to question the hierarchical relationship so comfortable which binds them to their collaborators but distorts the relationship. Also wonder about their role if they go beyond that of the omniscient manager supposed to have the solution to all the problems of their collaborators. They will then have to agree to show vulnerability and humility by recognizing that others than them probably have better solutions to offer. They must be able to accompany them to help them bring out these solutions, which requires new skills.
Even if the organizational methods of our companies do not favor this manager-coach model which requires greater availability in terms of time, many actions can already be implemented in the current context and demonstrate that in the long term , this model is not only more respectful of people but also much more efficient for the company.
We hope that the WILL method will offer a concrete and pragmatic framework to accelerate the transition to this new model. It was designed to meet the constraints of the busy managers that I embody through almost each of my examples. The WILL Academy training which teaches the WILL method is thus very accessible, even for the most overwhelmed managers since it is broken down into 10 short sessions of 1.5 hours on a weekly basis and in video. No more excuses not to change!