Tuesday, January 4, 2011

10 Things that Keep Managers up at Night…..(and a “sleep aid” for each one)

Most of the time being a manager can be incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of helping an individual or team reach their goals and perform at their best. Managers are usually in a better position to influence and lead change. And let’s face it, in most organizations, being a manager means a better compensation package.
However, there’s a price to pay for the privilege to lead, the status, and those extra rewards and perks. Being a manager means you also have to deal with the tough issues that can cause you to lose sleep at night.

Having been a manager for over twenty years, and being in positions that involve working with managers at all levels, here’s what I’ve found to be the top ten issues that can keep a manager up at night. I’ve also included a “sleep aid” for each one.

1. Confronting a performance issue.
No doubt, this one always has been and always will be the granddaddy of all manager headaches. While they are never easy, they don’t have to be so hard. A lot of performance problems can be preventing with better selection, establishing clear expectations, regular feedback, coaching and development, and using a progressive discipline process. Yes, you’ll still need to confront poor performance, but when you do, it shouldn’t be a surprise and it’ll be the right thing to do.

2. Having to fire or lay off an employee.
There really is no sleep aid for this one. No matter what you’ve done (see #1), it’s always going to be gut-wrenching. No manager should ever get too comfortable with this responsibility.
In addition to the tips in #1, make sure you have clear polices and training for severe conduct violations. For layoffs, make sure you use a fair and consistent process, get training on how to conduct the discussion (in a respectful way), and provide a fair severance and outplacement package.

3. A tough hiring decision.
Choosing between your final candidates can be agonizing! If you choose wrong, you’re going to end up dealing with a few of the other problems on this list. The cure? Use a good selection process – DO NOT “wing it” (most managers actually do).
Get trained in selection interviewing; consider using validated selection assessments; get multiple inputs, offer realistic job previews or shadowing, and work with a good HR pro or recruiter.

4. Guilt from doing something unethical or wrong.
Here’s a preventative cure that’s served me well over the years: when making a decision, ask yourself, “How comfortable would I be reading about my decision in the newspaper the next day”? That’s a far better question than “what’s the chances of being caught”?
However, if you do screw up (and we all do), then the best thing is to come clean and own up to it. Cover-ups usually get people in more trouble than the original screw-up. Live with the consequences, learn from your mistake, and get on with it.

5. Boss confrontations.
The topic of how to deal with a bad boss would take up more space than this post allows. However, let’s assume most bosses are reasonably competent with good intentions (and they are). Bosses, and people in general, don’t like being told they are wrong. So if that’s your goal in a confrontation (to convince your boss you’re right and they are wrong), then it’s not going to be a productive discussion.
Try putting yourself in your boss’s shoes, and offer your idea as an alternative than will help them achieve their objectives. Also, listen and keep an open mind. Who knows, your boss may have information that would lead you to re-consider your idea.
Most importantly, work on establishing a foundation of trust and mutual respect with your boss. That way, you’ll be able to have disagreements in a safe and productive environment. For more on this topic, read John Baldoni’s Lead Your Boss.

6. Team member conflicts.
As managers, we all want our employees to collaborate, work as a team, and play nice in the sandbox. When one employee comes to you with complaints about another employee, it puts the manager in a “Judge Judy” position of having to arbitrate the dispute. To some degree, just like in being parent, it comes with the territory. However, a lot of team member conflict can be avoided with a hiring profile that places an importance on teamwork and collaboration, as well as clear expectations, rewards, and consequences that reinforce these expectations. Beware – don’t turn your back on the “star” performer that’s consistently ticking off their co-workers. If you do, than you’ll get exactly what you deserve – a disruptive prima donna, team turnover, and a reputation as a wimp manager.

7. Peer confrontations.
Are you starting to see a trend here? Yes, confrontations - those messy people issues - are probably the single aspect of work that keep managers up at night the most. That’s why many managers tend to avoid them. In some cases, that’s not a bad strategy (i.e., develop more tolerance, acceptance, etc…). However, when the stakes are high, avoidance is a terrible strategy. Also, not all confrontations are bad - a little constructive conflict is healthy for a team.
I’d recommend learning how to have a “crucial conversation”. It’s a must skill for any manager.

8. Having to do something important that you don’t know how to do.
It’s always a challenge when we have to leave our comfort zone and feel “incompetent” all over again. However, if you never do anything new and different, you’re not developing. The most impactful way to develop as a leader is new jobs and challenging assignments. “Learning agility” is not something anyone is born with – it can be developed over time.
When you are in a new role or doing something new, put a development plan in place to ensure your success. There are usually 2-3 “subject matter experts” that you can learn from, as well as books, courses, and online resources. Nowadays, with social networking, you can easily find someone that’s willing to help by sharing their expertise in whatever you need to learn. Great leaders are always learning, and are not afraid to admit it.

9. Losing a star performer.
Don’t wait until your star performer shows up with an offer letter. By then, it’s too late. Make sure your “A players” are paid what they are worth, are challenged, supported, and are learning. Let them know you care and how much you appreciate them.
Keep in mind, star performers will eventually get promoted or leave for better opportunities. That’s OK, that’s the rewarding part of being a great leader (as long as they are leaving for the right reasons, not because they’re dissatisfied).

10. Burnout.
Take care of your health and always keep a perspective on the things in life that really matter. Managers that don’t take vacations are not benefiting from the opportunity to recharge their batteries. They also set terrible examples for their employees, which can lead to burning them out as well.
A primary cause of burnout is job satisfaction, not hard work. If you’re doing something you truly hate, then make a plan to transition to something else. Life is too short… we don’t need to settle for a job we hate. There are always choices.

How about you? What keeps you up at night as a manager?


Erin said...

Dan, this is a fantastic post. Personally, I think most of us would agree that having to fire someone or perform a layoff is most stressful. I also wonder how much leaders worry specifically about career coaching - not necessarily confronting a performance issue but rather figuring out how to provide regular, constructive feedback on performance, even to top performers, in order to maximize performance from the entire team. We all need to get as good as possible at this task.

adam said...

Dan, wonderful thoughts. I am not a manager yet but someday I will be and I do not look forward to most of these situations but I am glad you have brought them to my attention. I have a friend and he had to layoff almost everyone in is department because of hard time in the company. He said it was one of the hardest things he had to do. What really made it hard for him was that most of the people in his department where his friends. I wish managers did not have to worry about so many things as but I am sure they learn a lot from these experiences. Thanks for your post.

Brandon Jones said...

Dan, This is a great post. I will really try to keep these ten points in mind as work over others. Thanks. Brandon

Nevada Magazine said...

Good stuff, Dan! Thanks

Julie McManus said...

Dan, I think this is an important post. I truly believe that sometimes employees think that leadership (and management) is all glamor and glitz. That somehow we sit in glass towers and dictate to those below us. The reality is as you describe it. Lot's of hard decisions that impact others and cause us to lose sleep at night. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

Chuck Hebert said...

Dan - Great post. I remember have an open leadership position on my team and had two superstars that were capable and had applied for the position. Talk about keeping you up at night. I was going to have to back-fill one position with the best qualified person and was worried the other person would quit (or disengage). I found if I was open with them both about the process, how was going to select the best person. And no matter what, I let them both know I was genuinely interested in progressing both of their careers. After six months now, they are both thriving! I still remember losing sleep the day before I made my choice.

Unknown said...

Dan, what a great post. Having never been a manager yet in my career I have not have to go through these tough situations yet, but I have definitely seen others go through them and it doesn't look easy. I know most companies have a specific policy regarding lay-offs, but personally do you think it is better to base them on performance, seniority, or a combination of both?

Dan McCarthy said...

Erin –
Thanks. I’ve found that while many managers are not comfortable, or good at coaching, it’s not one of those things that keep them up at night with anxiety and stress. They kind of treat it like exercise and dieting – they know they should, but it’s hard to be disciplined enough to do it and get good at it. Or they just might know how to do it effectively.

Brandon –

Nevada –

Julie –
Thanks. Overall, I think the rewards far outweigh the headaches.

Chuck –
Thanks for sharing that story. I don’t think most people realize how incredibly stressful hiring decisions can be. Glad you made a good choice.

Thanks. Layoffs can sometimes be position, function, or location based, having nothing to do with either. But if you need to choose amongst a group of employees, I think it should be primarily performance. If you base it too much on seniority, you could lose your best people.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been a manager of some sorts for about 15 years and this post nails it. I was reliving many tough decisions and confrontations as I was reading each bullet. Ugh, the confrontations are the worst. Having to discuss unethical behavior with bosses was the toughest for me. It’s happened more than once. Not the most fun thing to do. And the team member conflicts at work can be tough too because no matter how well you are prepared to address the issue, some people are just not going to like each other. I hate no win situations.

People should know where they stand even before they get their performance review. If a manager hits an employee with a negative review and they are surprised, that leader is doing a poor job of daily feedback.

Losing great performers is a given. It’s going to happen. That’s on the manager to make sure systems are in place and training is available in order to keep operating even in the face of those key losses.

Great post.

Dan McCarthy said...

reiter331 -
Thanks. Sounds like you've earned your stripes as a manager. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?

Pat Sheehan said...

Thanks Dan, another great article on how to lead, the issues and difficulties. I hope that there are more people considering management and leadership to be a privilege rather than a right that requires our best efforts as a result of posts like this one.
Pat Sheehan

Jody Urquhart said...

HR issues are by far the most stressful thing about management. Many companies today just struggle to get their employees to show up on time. The work ethic has changed alot.

Maria Payroll said...

Great article. Very interesting and you have made a lot of good points. It is really hard to be a manager. If you were offered this position, then you should know how to handle the situations above. So thank you for sharing these helpful tips. I also agree that firing someone is the most stressful and managers do their best in order to prevent this from happening. And that is through performance reviews and confrontations. As for burnout, you would not feel that as long as you are happy and satisfied with what you are doing.

Dan McCarthy said...

Pat -
Thanks. I like your commnet about leadership/management being a privlege, not a right.

Jody -
Thanks for your comment. I really have not noticed a change in work ethic over the years. My guess is that it's always varied.

Maria -
Thanks. Yes, it can be hard - you should at least be aware of what you are getting into before deciding you want to be a manager.

Resume Objectives said...

Management post is really very hectic and stressful as i have seen but i am very interested to do such job. Well its a challenge for all us and we can do it best. @ Dan, you have shared very great tips and i really liked to read it.