Managing Down – Supporting the Holistic Needs of Employees for Maximum Productivity
As a child, I never considered myself a very smart person. Though I was encouraged to participate in a number of gifted programs, something always fell short in the process, and I always assumed it was me. I got decent grades, but the feedback on my report cards consistently spoke of my being distracted and lacking follow through on tasks and projects. Not until my 8th grade year did I finally secure a spot in the California GATE program, and had the opportunity to discover it wasn’t me after all, but how I’d been taught. (Pause to note that I could speak for days on our broken education system… but that’s not what this post is about.)
This revelation helped me, during a foundational time for my growth, to internalize the idea of playing to an individual’s needs and work style in order to get them to function at their highest capacity. And, as I moved into spaces where I was able to apply this idea, that internalization solidified as part of my personal management ethos – learn how people work, and build systems which support them.
I know this concept is not new, and yet I continue to observe companies who create standardized protocols and processes across huge groups of people, expecting to get the same results from each person. One example of this is the idea that people, generally, thrive on competition. Companies will set up challenges among departments or peers to encourage high achievement, and then management doesn’t understand when a handful of those people fall completely short of their goal. Another example is asking for feedback in meetings. A manager will share a new idea or project, ask for immediate feedback in that session, and find themselves frustrated that some of their team have nothing to contribute. Is this a failing in those individuals? I think not. I see it as a massive failing in management, in leadership, in the skill of managing down.
Not everyone thrives on competition. In fact, many people are debilitated by the idea that their efforts will be directly weighed against others, and that their success depends on “beating” someone else.
Some people love giving immediate feedback – letting ideas flow, untethered and not fully formed. But that requires a level of confidence and vulnerability that doesn’t suit everyone. You have to find what works for your people, and build something around them.
Now, I’m not saying we should, as managers, always handle our team with kid gloves, changing every aspect of work to meet the specific needs of each individual. That would be madness. But I do think there’s room for a balance – setting expectations for deadlines and work time, being clear on how communication flows and allowing people to find the place that fits their style.
My belief is that by creating this kind of flexibility in certain facets of our work, we actually build a deeper level of trust with those we manage. We show them that we see and understand them as an individual, whole human, and we believe they can meet the needs of the organization without having to conform to an ill-fitting jacket. By establishing that trust, we have room to challenge one another to achieve more, reach higher and succeed together.