Opinion by Paul Glen

Knowing the manager you really are

We all have distorted self-perceptions, but that can be especially harmful in a manager

Opinion by Paul Glen

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Nearly everyone thinks his or her performance is above average. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that nearly half of them must be wrong.

Managers are no different when it comes to this distorted self-perception. The problem is that managers’ misconceptions prevent them from learning and becoming better at their jobs. Worse than that, their deficiencies impose burdens on so many others: subordinates, peers, supervisors and outside stakeholders. If you’re a manager, it’s worth investing some energy to make sure that you have an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t worry about the psychological processes that can lead to such misperceptions. Although the debates about that are interesting, what is important is to know that it is overwhelmingly likely that you have unreliable beliefs about the quality of your management. I’m not saying that you are a terrible manager and don’t know it. In fact, you might be better than you perceive yourself to be. Either way, having an unrealistic self-assessment is not a weakness; it’s just part of being human.

As an IT management consultant who has had the opportunity to talk with many technical managers around the world, I have noticed that most managers use two primary indicators to judge their own performance. Unfortunately, neither is a particularly reliable metric.

Task success

What I most often see is managers assessing themselves positively based on whether their team finished their tasks. “We finished the project, so I must be a good manager.” “We met our service-level targets for the month, so I must be a good manager.” “We managed that downtime crisis and restored service, so I must be a good manager.” When managers focus on this indicator, they typically ignore all others.

Any team that meets its task goals deserves praise, but does it necessarily follow that that the team owes its success to its manager? Looked at that way, the fallacy becomes clear. Some groups deliver because of a small number of high-performing contributors who are able to shut out the chaos around them. Others deliver despite their managers, not because of them.

And many times, managers who are focused on task success will use methods that incur costs, possibly even undermining the future capabilities of the group. They might drive away talented employees by creating toxic work environments, deliberately pitting people against one another and empowering subgroups that encourage internal conflict. They reward people who perform well but behave badly.

And they destroy relationships with stakeholders. They squander hard-earned trust by playing hardball politics. They hide important information, lie in order to manipulate decision making or intimidate others by overwhelming them with jargon and details.

Personal comfort

The other common touchstone for managers’ self-assessment is their personal comfort level with their approach to the job. “If I remain true to myself, I will be a good manager.” “I treat my staff the way I wanted to be treated when I was in their role, so I am the manager I always wanted.”

Like all people, managers tend to keep doing what works for them. This usually holds true even when they move from their old role to their managerial role. They remain the people they were before and continue the behaviors that made them successful and comfortable in the past.

And overall, that’s not a bad thing. People who always valued honesty and fairness continue to do so. People with a history of treating others with respect don’t abandon their habits. But some accustomed and comfortable behaviors can diminish a manager’s effectiveness.

For example, it isn’t unusual for non-managers in the modern workplace to learn the value of avoiding conflict. You don’t draw a lot of negative attention when you chart narrow paths through tricky situations. But effective managers use conflict strategically. They know when to press issues, where to set behavioral boundaries and how to redirect employees’ attention to important issues. Confronting tensions that might be simmering below the surface can nip a team’s dysfunction in the bud.

Other managers value in themselves their mastery of the work at hand. They might believe that they were chosen for management because their competence outshone all others, but because they see their value as lying in their mastery, they have a hard time delegating to less capable people — and in their minds, everyone is less capable. Managers who feel that their mastery is what makes them successful end up leading teams that can accomplish very little.

Whether you are a new manager or an old hand, it’s important for you to avoid the common traps that lead to misperceptions about your performance. A realistic self-image is the essential starting point for improving your managerial abilities.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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