Managers need to understand that failure happens

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I was just doing some research on keywords around management skills — seems like something I discuss often — and the volume on searches is higher than you’d think (about 1,900/month), yet every article that’s popular around management skills is complete bullshit and fluff. My site isn’t great for SEO — I still think most people find it through “should I move to Minneapolis?” (where I don’t even live presently) or some 1984 true crime case — but I think I can do a better job explaining a core issue of management skills, so let’s try. Shall we?

Management skills: How we often think of them

One of the most confusing things for many people in business is the idea that management isn’t intuitive, which is an idea backed up by executives at Google and beyond. Here’s what that means: you get promoted (i.e. you become a manager) through a series of actions around “I hit my targets” or “I achieved my goals,” right? Then you become this manager and you think — “Well, I need to drive that in others!” That’s actually incorrect. When you think about replicating your management skills in others and you think that way, you’re endorsing micromanagement. Most people hate that. Above all, consider this: we want workplaces to be logic-driven, and that’s why we assign process and protocol to everything. In reality? Workplaces are driven by emotions, because workplaces are made up of people, and people are emotional.

So this is the inherent problem with management skills. We often think of them in a very Type-A, target-hitting way. So, for example, someone with management skills would focus on:

  • ROI!
  • KPIs!
  • Bandwidth!
  • Deliverables!
  • Tasks!
  • Growth!
  • Financial metrics!

This is all a part of management skills, yes — we can’t tell someone they’re a manager and make everything fluffy and operate in a vacuum aside from fiscal metrics, especially if it’s a company that only truly cares about fiscal metrics. (How can management skills be evaluated unless they revolve around something the company actually cares about?)

So, see … we often think of management skills in this goals-focused, revenue-chasing, Type-A context. These are the same reasons we assume introverts can’t be good at networking, because networking seems tied to management skills and it all seems tied to being extroverted — and how could an introvert succeed there? (Quite easily, in fact.)

Part of all this, then, comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about management skills.

Management skills: How we should think of them

When you manage other people, you’re responsible for an element of their lives. Theoretically — although it doesn’t always work this way — you can control their workflow. That, in turn, is tied to how happy they are (or aren’t) at work. Very little about the employee-boss relationship happens in a vacuum; in reality, most happens in a very visceral and fundamental way. People often leave bosses, as opposed to jobs. (That said, there’s now research that people will leave a good boss as well.)

In this environment — where management skills means you have control over an aspect of a person’s life and how they feel about it — you need to try and carve out an organic relationship with the person you manage, as opposed to hiding behind the once-a-year review (which most managers do). Managers are often terrified of being seen as ‘friends’ with their direct reports, but building relationships is key to management skills.

How do you build relationships?

Typically, via trust.

How do you gain trust?

Typically, via time — but also via conversations about harder topics.

And now we come to failure.

See, people do not like to discuss failure at work — and that’s logical, because of attitudes such as:

But we know from research that building relationships and establishing connections comes from transparency, and transparency comes from openness, and one of the biggest ways to establish openness is to talk about your failings and foibles. Again, we don’t love discussing failure at work.

Management skills: Failure happens

So here’s where we stand:

Now think of some different managers you’ve had, and consider this question about their management skills.

When something went wrong — a deadline wasn’t hit, a project wasn’t ideal, something fell through the cracks — how did they react?

Most managers I know react in this fashion:


Welcome to the working world — or at least part of the one I’ve inhabited.

Most managers have a low tolerance for failure (or immediate lack of success) because all their management skills training teaches them they need to be hard-ass, hard-line, Type-A, target-chasers. (That is, if they’ve gotten any leadership training at all.)

So think about this, then: failure happens every day — hell, every hour — in organizations worldwide. People miss targets, whiff on goals, forget meetings, get drunk at lunch, surf Facebook, etc. Failure is everywhere, but instead of actually dealing with that fact — what do management skills tell us to do?

Ignore it, then replace it with a cheapened metric that seems to indicate success.

Instead — let’s admit failure happens. Let’s learn from it. Let’s grow from it. Let’s build from it. Let’s get better for the next time. Let’s let failure influence our management skills.

Can a tie between management skills and failure ever really happen?

Probably not — most managers design their day-to-day to avoid being seen as incompetent, and most human brains are set up to predict threats. In that world — i.e. the real world, not the world we write about in Forbes when we discuss “futurists re-shaping work!” breathlessly — it’s nearly impossible to root better management skills in discussions of failure.

Here’s the thing I never get, though: there are basically three things that explain everything in your life, right?

  • Sex (creates you)
  • Failure (shapes and drives you)
  • Money (determines the kind of life you can have in the first world)

What happens in most conversations? You’re not allowed to discuss money, sex, or failure. Odd, eh?

I could have hit this post hard bellowing about ‘transparency!’ and ‘organic comms!’ and ‘cloud computing!’ and ‘e-mail etiquette!’ but instead, I kept it simple: if you want better management skills, be ready to have a few conversations about failure and the subsequent growth that results from it. The flip side, which you probably already do, is confusing management skills with ‘I need to hold people accountable!’ and then confusing accountability with ‘dressing someone down in public.’

What’s your take on management skills as relates to discussions of workplace failure?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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