Wise Management

How to balance being a manager who gets results with a manager who cares for their team.

June, 2020 | Python

Introduction

When I first started managing, I honestly thought I had to choose between managing a high-performing team or managing a team I could go to happy hour with. A lot of managers worry about this. Being a supportive manager just seems at odds with being a manager whose team gets results.

Can you be demanding and supportive at the same time?

Well, in short, you can. In fact, it's imperative that you figure this out.

Hitting that perfect balance of being demanding, but supportive is elusive but it is not impossible. Hopefully you've encountered someone in your life who did it well, maybe a former coach or teacher - someone who was both tough and loving.

Wise Teaching

This tension between being supportive and demanding is something that is felt in other disciplines too. One that I've turned to for inspiration is teaching. Teachers have a great name for striking this balance well: wise teaching.

I learned about this concept in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Being demanding and being supportive fall on two spectrums, creating a quadrant of teaching styles:

Supportive Demanding Quadrant

Students with Permissive teachers will put more effort into their school work because their teacher cares for them. Students with Authoritarian teachers make measurably larger strides in their academic skills. Students with Wise teachers experience both: increased competence compared to their peers and increased engagement with their school work.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? A team that is happy and engaged and knocking out one home run project after another. We can apply some of the research on wise teaching to management to get a similar result. Call it wise management.

Wise Management

Wise managing is when you are able to strike the same balance with the members of your team as wise teachers do with their students. It is based on deep respect and care for the individual, while firmly enforcing your expectations of their (high) performance. It's tricky to accomplish, certainly, but all wise managers do.

Raise Your Expectations

The first principle of wise management is simple: raise your expectations. If you feel some resistance to that, for example by wondering if your team could meet higher standards, then know this: you get what you expect from your team.

My favorite study into wise teaching is one conducted by Robert Rosenthal that looks into teacher expectations of student achievement. Rosenthal split classes into two groups at random and told their teachers that one group had particularly high potential. At the end of the year, these students had outperformed their peers. The reason for their success? Rosenthal concluded that their teachers believed they were talented, treated them as such, and students rose to meet expectations.

How can you leverage the results of this study? Well, if you're holding back on raising the standards you hold your team to because you're worried they wont meet them, then stop. Instead, introduce them to the new standards and raise your expectations.

You can't stop at raising your expectations though. In our wise teaching parlance, that would make you an authoritarian manager. Avoid this by also becoming more supportive.

Give Supportive Feedback

Another great study on wise teaching looked at the effect supportive feedback had on student effort. David Yeager and Geoff Cohen asked a group of teachers to provide written feedback on student essays, including suggested improvements and words of encouragement. Then, they divided the essays into two groups. One group of essays included a note with each essay that said, "I'm giving you these comments so that you'll have feedback on your paper." The other group of essays included a note with each essay that said, "I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them."

Students were then given the option to revise their essays, incorporating the feedback from their teachers. 80% of the students who received the second note turned in a revised essay.

How can you provide similar feedback to your team? Doing so will help them in two ways:

  1. It'll help them see where they're not meeting the expectations you've set
  2. It gives them a clear idea of what they need to change to reach those expectations

The best way I can think of for providing such feedback is in a one-on-one. Use that time to not only check in on how your team member is doing, but also to provide such feedback on the work they're doing.

Conclusion

I think most new managers see being supportive and being demanding as being at odds with each other. What gets mistaken as a contradiction is really just a tension between these two ideas. Being both supportive and demanding is certainly challenging. But it's something you can strive for continually through out the rest of your career as a manager.

Raising your expectations will make you a more demanding manager; providing supportive feedback will make you a more supportive manager.

And of course doing both well will make you a wise manager.