Managers Need to Edit Themselves Before Taking On Subordinates

It isn’t smart to make your employees feel stupid.

Once there was this senior executive—okay, he was the head of my huge law enforcement agency—who really, really took writing to heart.

Every month I gave him a draft column for the magazine. And every month he sent it back to me (I could almost hear him huffing and puffing) with a plethora of scrawled edits: "NO! NO! NO!"

Another executive used to simply take the draft and rewrite the whole thing, every time, well past the deadline.

Senior executives live and die by the power of their communication. They can only really delegate to someone who thinks exactly like themselves. As David Samuels discovered about President Obama and his chief communicator, Ben Rhodes:

Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim....He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” - David Samuels, "The Aspiring Novelist Who Became President Obama's Foreign Policy Guru," The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

Most of us writers are not Ben Rhodes, though. So we actually need our senior executives to be extremely involved—to focus on the message itself, while trusting us to make their words clear and engaging.

But communication is only one part of a much larger issue when it comes to effectively running an organization: How much should supervisory professionals "edit" the work of their subordinates? 

Think about how confusing this is. On the one hand, we are encouraged to empower people. But on the other, we insist on holding leaders and managers accountable for results, even when we aren't exactly sure what “results” actually means.

Plus there is pressure, when you're in a management role, to "prove" that you are adding some value to the organization. If your employees are doing just fine without your red pencil editorial reviews, then what exactly are we paying you for?

But it's not good management to constantly be in people's faces. And subordinates should not need to be mind readers to do a good job.

Can you imagine if we ran the Army this way? "Oh we don't have standard operating procedures," we'd say to new recruits. "Just do what I do, and you can repeat my opinions after me."

People wouldn't last very long on the battlefield.

It seems to me that the job of a manager is in fact the opposite of what one might think: To make sure that people can normally do their work independently. Ideally, enable them to innovate, so that they waste less time and get a lot more done. This isn't abdicating the role, but rather being so skillful about how you perform it that it looks like you almost aren't there.

Here's an interesting parallel from the world of makeup. It turns out that women are perceived as significantly more attractive when we wear subtle cosmetics. Overdone makeup takes away from a woman's beauty, and no makeup whatsoever does nothing to enhance it. 

So we need the subtle manager in our lives, the kind that if it were a lipstick would be called "natural": In the background, behind the scenes but present, constantly monitoring, evaluating, adjusting, and enhancing the output of the work unit.

But we don't need, and can't afford, the “cherry red” version: ranting and raving, self-important, sadistic, and ultimately incompetent version. 

Not the take-out-your-red-pencil, make-her-feel-stupid, nobody-can-get-a-thing-done-without-me kind of manager.

Not the demoralizing, disempowering, devaluing, and degrading one, who makes themselves look good by putting others down in comparison.

Even if you're supervising writers, there's a better way to help them generate communication than to insist they read the boss's mind. I've heard that complaint from people more than once, and they shouldn't have to do that to be rated outstanding any more than they should have to stay late, make coffee, buy drinks or form a personal friendship with the boss.

When I first became a manager I asked my husband for advice.

"Don't bother people," he said. "If you can remember that, the rest will come naturally."

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.