Managing Your Manager

How Helping Your Manager Succeed Will Help You Succeed

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget the very simple fact that your manager wants to help you do great work that fulfills you. Let that sink in. Your manager wants you to be productive and happy and getting even better over time as often as possible. She wants your work to make a meaningful impact on the company’s goals. And she wants to be (and feel!) like she helps you get there.

We can all help our managers help us by more thoughtfully considering their goals, preferences, motivations, and style in the way we work with them.   

I’ve come up with a set of questions to help you figure out what makes your manager tick, and some specific steps you can take to help them help you. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Every question is coupled with a spectrum on which you can plot your manager.
  • If your manager indexes heavily towards one end of a spectrum, consider giving the suggested tactics a try.
  • If your manager falls in the middle of the spectrum, move on to the next one (you’ll probably find more impactful tactics elsewhere).

Depending on your relationship and level of comfort with your manager, you could also do this exercise together to start a conversation and make some agreements about how to best work together. 

Why does your manager manage?

Develop people: Managers motivated by developing people want you to do the best work of your career. They regularly check in on how you are doing and care a great deal about team and company culture, and your role in it. They’re your personal cheerleader.

Deliver outcomes: Managers motivated by delivering outcomes want you to drive excellent work to completion. They regularly check in on the status of your projects and care a great deal about the quality, progress, and outcomes of the work, and your role in it. They’re your personal work catalyst.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘develop people’: 

  • Clarify your career aspirations and/or ask for help creating a plan (some teams call these Talent Plans).
  • Show up for the team (work at your desk, greet your team in Slack, engage during meetings, attend outside work events or plan them).
  • Recognize other team members for their work.
  • Invest in the personal relationship as much as you can.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘deliver outcomes’: 

  • Above all else, get the work done.
  • Ensure your outcomes are measurable and measure progress/impact with it.
  • Provide regular and consistent progress updates.
  • Describe blockers with clear context and a plan for movement (and ask for help when you need it).
  • Share ideas for how you could make those outcomes even better, faster, or more impactful.

Note: positivity and optimism are helpful across the board. 

What brings your manager pride?

Craft: Managers who value craft want you and your teammates to do spectacular, industry-shaping work. Craft-focused managers seek a combination of pixel-perfection and innovation. They’ll obsess over the details. These types of managers are often industry/domain experts themselves who may have moved into a management role to multiply their impact by helping more people do the stuff they’re great at. 

Machinery: Managers who value machinery believe that how things get done is just as important as what gets done. Machinery-focused managers seek to build well-oiled machines and processes that are humming. Often, managers who take pride in machinery are professional managers more than they are practitioners. I’ve seen this align closely with management experience and larger team size.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘craft’: 

  • Share principles for what constitutes “great work” in the field you’re working in and your work specifically.
  • Meticulously describe the context for each choice, especially the small ones.
  • Keep an eye on what competitors are up to. 
  • Share inspiration to make sure you’re on the same page about what you’re striving for.
  • Bring “user” feedback from organizational stakeholders and knowledgeable people outside the company.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘machinery’: 

  • Plug in to any and all appropriate processes that she has set up (meetings, 1:1’s, team events, unstructured time).
  • For projects you are playing a leading role in, agree upon which project management practices to invoke. 
  • Regularly get a pulse on stakeholder satisfaction.

How does your manager plug in to the broader organization?

Upholding conditions: Managers who uphold conditions don’t like to be the one to shake things up. They like to plug into the existing way of doing things. If they do change, it’s often extrinsically versus intrinsically motivated—in other words, they take their cues for what to do and how to do it from the broader organization.

Challenging conditions: Managers who challenge conditions like to bring new ideas to team practices. They value experimentation and embrace change (they may even push for it).  

If your manager indexes high towards ‘uphold conditions: 

  • Show your manager how you are working in lock step with the organization’s way of doing things.
  • Lean on and refer to the company’s lexicon and any documented norms or standards as you do your work.
  • Share feedback on existing team conditions and new ideas for improvements sparingly and strategically. 
  • Be very thoughtful and deliberate with what feedback you give and improvements you suggest. If it can be avoided (if it’s not significantly impacting your experience working with your manager or your success at the company and/or in your career), do not poke holes in areas that are pride points. It could draw on your manager’s energy and make her see you as more of a threat to her values than a partner in improvements. 

If your manager indexes high towards ‘challenge conditions’: 

  • Proactively point out examples for where things could be better, or where your organization could experiment with a new way of doing things as a model to the rest of the company
  • Share feedback on existing team conditions and new ideas for improvements liberally, even half-baked ones. 
  • Focus those ideas on topics that align with other manager preferences. For example, if your manager indexes high on ‘develop people,’ share ideas for ways that the team can build people in their careers. It will light them up and help them see you as a partner in the team’s success.

How does your manager bring work to you?

Assigns tasks: Managers who assign tasks share tightly-scoped workstreams and expect you to accomplish those workstreams to spec as efficiently as possible. At their worst, managers who assign tasks may be called micromanagers. At their best, managers who assign tasks roll up their sleeves, dive into the work with you, and teach you a ton along the way.  As an ambitious operator, it should be your goal to increasingly build trust with your manager such that she increasingly assigns goals over tasks.  

Assigns goals: Managers who assign goals share the problem statement and expect you to come up with the tactics that will provide the best solution most efficiently. It’s up to you to investigate potential solutions, prioritize workstreams, take the work to completion, and share results. Managers who assign goals often have a high degree of trust in their team members.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘assigns tasks’: 

  • Align on the brief for the project to ensure you are on the same page about the task, then do the work very well and very quickly.
  • Push yourself towards the ‘assigns goals’ end of the spectrum by always asking what the overall goals are, and measure and report on the outcomes. You want to establish a reputation of being a reliable and thoughtful operator.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘assigns goals’: 

  • Ask about principles for the goal (how was the goal created?)
  • Communicate all decisions (especially at the beginning so you don’t end up running down the wrong path). 
  • Track progress and provide regular updates.

 How does your manager prefer to work with you?

Companion: Companion managers want to be with you every step of the way—they’re often called player-coaches. They like to be thought-partners in your work and collaborate in-the-moment as you to untangle tricky scenarios. They love to white-board, brainstorm, 2x2 and decision-tree right alongside you.

Hero: Hero managers want to step in when you need them to. They like to get involved when necessary to unblock your work and clear the path for your success. They pride themselves in being “shit umbrellas” and love to “take care of it” on your behalf, without taking your time. (When it happens, it’ll feel like magic.)  

Note: The preference for being companion versus hero manager doesn’t necessarily correlate with trust in their team member or how autonomous they believe their team member to be. Unlike the ‘assigns tasks or assigns goals’ spectrum, finding your manager on one end of the companion-hero spectrum or the other is not necessarily a signal of how she sees you and your work. 

If your manager indexes high towards ‘companion’: 

  • Bring questions early and often.
  • Be prepared to share detailed context and constraints to help her spin up as quickly as possible. 
  • Clarify the implications of decisions and directions you come up with together. 
  • Consider doing work together outside of the “office” context (over a meal, walk, or cocktail). 

If your manager indexes high towards ‘hero’: 

  • Be prepared to share precise context (she’s going to use what you tell her to represent you and your work elsewhere). 
  • Have a specific ask prepared. 

Note: After your manager supports you here, say thank you earnestly. The act of relying on each other to get something done builds trust. Plus, unlocking something together as a real bonding experience.

In what phase does your manager prefer to see your work?

Raw material: Managers who prefer to see your raw material are interested in your processes. They like coming to your meetings and being cc’d on your emails. They best process information (and/or relay it to others) by synthesizing on their own. Often, this comes from a place of wanting to be able to represent not only the big picture, but also the small details involved in the work. 

Packaged ideas: Managers who prefer to see packaged material want to see only the most critical pieces of information. They like weekly updates and curated presentations. They best process information (and/or relay it to others) when it has been organized for them. This can correlate with high trust in their teammates or general business and it’s critical to understand which one. 

Note: Neither of these should be interpreted as micro-management; they are preferences for how information is received such that your manager can digest (and sometimes route) your work.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘raw material’: 

  • Overshare with meeting and email invites (make activities opt-out versus opt-in for her).
  • Ask for observations/feedback/learnings regularly (to ensure that you have a shared view of reality). 
  • Still create a formal artifact at the beginning and end of a project that collects full state.

If your manager indexes high towards ‘packaged ideas’: 

  • Ask for the preferred format for your packaged ideas (presentation, formal briefing, written memo). 
  • Clarify whether she is your only audience for your artifact or it may be distributed to others (if the latter, ask who).

Did you like this essay and want to go deeper? 

Check out more of essays on the psychology of productivity below.

  • Beware of Pet Explanations how jumping to conclusions leads us to keep doing the same dumb things over and over, and how we can expand our psychological flexibility to find things that work.
  • What is Underneath Productivity? Productivity is actually about psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and literature. If we're honest about that we might get more done—and live better lives.
  • How Hard Should I Push Myself? How you can use—and misuse—the stress response to get more done.

If you liked this article you can learn more about Brie and how she helps company leaders do the work of culture building here.

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