Good Managers Watch the Actors, Not Just the Action

They watch how people perform and conduct themselves across a range of situations.

In 30 years of marriage, my wife and I have disagreed on only a few issues of consequence. One of those is our taste in movies. (Hey, movies are consequential!) I am addicted to character study and she loves action movies. Because marriage is built on compromise, we do just that. I let her pick and I make up for it by getting my fix of character-study in my professional pursuits.

It turns out our workplaces are filled with characters, although sometimes they are hard to see because of all of the action.

In my experience, the best managers are devoted students of the art of character study—not out of some desire to play armchair psychologist, but rather out of the desire to help. These managers are keen observers of how people perform and conduct themselves across a range of situations. They look for clues that point to superpowers and situations that expose or amplify gaps. And they use these insights to provide feedback and offer coaching.

I was surprised as a young professional when my manager offered her views on my ability to work with groups. “Your future will be about guiding groups to achieve big things,” she offered during one of my performance reviews. “Why do you think this?” I asked. “Because, I’ve watched how people react to you,” was her answer.

I filed that exchange away, but have appreciated her style of observation and have used it as my own model for many years. Ultimately, what she had observed is that guiding and teaching in group settings energizes me, allowing me to do my best at helping others.

Some managers thrive on the action. They want to be in the thick of the work knocking down bad guys and winning the day for the good guys. Good managers pay very, very close attention to the behaviors of the individuals involved in the action. There’s an important difference.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.