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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Invisible Spotlight


Undoubtedly, as a manager, you know the big moments. Whether it's your first introduction to new subordinates, a staff meeting, or a congratulatory lunch for the team, you are prepared to make the right impression. But it's the seemingly insignificant moments that really count.

According to management consultants Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz, authors of The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can't Hide (CreateSpace, 2011), bosses don't realize the impact they have on employees' effectiveness and satisfaction. And, Wasserman says, they often are oblivious to the fact that employees are scrutinizing their every word and deed for clues to success.

"Managers have a tendency to under- estimate the fact that they're being spoken about at dinner every night," Wasserman says. "They get jobs because they are exceedingly competent and because they love the work they're doing. They want to continue doing that work and often forget their work has expanded and their people are watching them."

That watching goes on virtually every minute of every day, not just on significant occasions. As important as it is to plan for the big events, Wasserman says, it's the small moments-the glance of recognition, the small compliments, the constructive feedback-that really make the difference in how employees view their jobs, their paths to success and their supervisors.

The book identifies five "managing moments" and tips on how to best handle them. Among the most important, Wasserman says, are moments of discomfort. Managers cannot avoid them, and they often have to orchestrate them, he says. They are the ones who have to confront an employee who consistently comes in late, or is dressed inappropriately, or who has a hygiene problem. Approaching these issues in a way that creates a respectful, clear and immediately instructive moment of discomfort goes a long way, according to Wasserman. But no matter how well you handle that moment, he says, the employee will be upset.

Wasserman contends it is then up to the manager to make it clear that a moment of discomfort does not irreparably damage the relationship. "These are uncomfortable but constructive moments that provide valuable information for employees on how to stay within a range of acceptable behavior," Wasserman says.

It is not only employees who create pivotal moments. He calls management a "sloppy game," com­paring it to parenting-if you engage in it, you're bound to mess up at least occasionally. When a manager loses his or her temper, says something offhand, or is overly dismissive of someone, that can have a harmful effect on the employee, who is usually in little or no position to address the issue. "It's not a 50-50 relationship, it's an 80-20 relationship" between manager and employee, Wasserman says. It is incumbent upon the manager to make the effort to recover and to keep the relationship on track.

The solutions Wasserman and Katz provide are not "paint-by-number." Managing is relational, and moments should be handled with that particular relationship in mind. "People are different," Wasserman says. "Some people will like a manager who teases and jokes with them, others will question what that's all about. Some like clear concrete direction, others want just general guidelines. One size doesn't fit all."

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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