The five elements to good management: ask, listen, take action, empower, and follow up
There isn’t one magic recipe for management. There are many of recipes. The challenge with giving advise to managers, especially in design, is the changing environment in which managers operate. Different environments require different styles of management at different times. Different people have different personalities and imposing a single management style in a large team is as ineffective as it is demoralizing.
The lack of a single management recipe, however, does not mean there are not common ways to ensure you, as a manager, can build a more inclusive, empowered, and connected team.
The simplest recipe I found so far is the same one we use as designers in better understanding and resolving customer problems: ask, listen, take action, empower, and follow up.
Just like any designer or researcher would tell you, the first step to truly getting feedback from customers is to ask them for their feedback. How you ask could take several different formats. Sometimes it’s passive through data, other times it’s more active through in-product feedback, and others it’s even more involved including qualitative research and deeper user research studies.
Just like different products and customers require different approaches, how you ask in your team can come in many different forms.
There are 1:1s that are designed to create a more structured communication with your direct reports. If that’s a method you prefer, and you schedule frequent 1:1s, please make them count.
To listen well and open the door for team members to share their thoughts with me, it also matters how you ask and what you ask.
“How’s it going?” in the hallway seems like a valid question designed to get a sense of a team member’s feelings today. However, more often than not, it’ll be heard as a gesture of niceness not a genuine question to understand their situation better. You’ll more likely to get an automatic “good” or even “great” even if things aren’t really good or great. Unless things have gotten off the rails in a major way, you’ll learn nothing asking that question. Don’t get me wrong, being nice in the hallway is good, keep on doing that, but it’s not really asking.
Using the same couple of minutes during the day to ask “how’s this specific project that you’re working on going this week?”,will get different and more genuine answers. Asking a bit deeper right after the question “what’s the highlight of today/last conversation?” might even get you a better more detailed answer.
Remember, the goal isn’t to uncover problems all the time. Even if there are no problems, the goal is to listen not check a box that you’ve asked.
Over the last few years, I’ve always assumed that the fact that I try my best to listen well to my team means they’ll feel comfortable coming to me, sharing their thoughts, and work with me to make progress. The reality, however, is getting to that comfort zone requires showing true interest in their work. It requires reaching out to them, consistently.
Asking is where listening starts.
Now that you’ve asked, you’ve got to listen. Truly listen. How you listen matters too.
We’ve all read or heard about the importance of listening instead of just waiting for someone to finish so you can talk. It’s a challenge most of us face. It’s a challenge I practice getting over every single day.
Listening and asking are a loop that help you get a better understanding not just of the specific issue you’re discussing but of the overall environment a team member is encountering.
One tip I use in my conversation is to repeat what I understood. Many times, simply repeating what you understood gives the person you’re working with an indication that you’re truly listening, you’ve understood their message, and that you get their perspective. It also offers you and them a chance to clarify your understanding if it doesn’t meet their message.
Now that you’ve listened, discuss next steps and take action!
Not every conversation requires you to take action. Sometimes, asking and listening is all the action you need to take.
There are many times where your attention is required and where you should take action. In areas where you can and should take action, take it swiftly and keep team members updated.
Here is the challenge I run into, often. The balance between taking action and empowering the team is a fine one. As a manager, get a better understanding from your team members on what they’d like your help with.
In other areas where they should be making progress, coach them and empower them to move it forward.
Don’t fish for everyone. Work to teach them how to fish.
Many times, it’s easy to take action that could make significant progress on projects instead of empowering your team members to have the needed conversation to achieve the same results. Sometimes it’s even much faster to take action. You might even mistaken that with helping your team make fast progress. The truth, however, is that the more action you take on behalf of your team, you’re building a culture of dependency. You are now the bottleneck.
I see this often, especially with new managers. They mistakenly believe their role is to make progress on project instead of the true value of their role which is helping their team make progress.
Empowering your team also means spending the time and effort to coach them. It means ensuring they understand your vision, strategy, and direction. It’s that they can challenge any of those things at any point. It’s also knowing that they can depend on you to support them once you’ve empowered them.
You’ve asked, you’ve listened, you’ve taken action, and you’ve empowered your team. You’re good! Note quite. Follow up.
Just like many of us mistakenly think the journey starts with listening instead of asking, many believe it ends with empowering.
One of the most important steps in a journey is following up. It’s basically asking again.
Following up is not just a way to get an update on the progress made. Following up means you truly care, you want to understand what happened and how it could’ve gone better, and that you truly want to celebrate successes with your team.
Following up is probably the best way to build trust with your team members. Follow up is also how a new journey of asking starts.
This is not a one way journey, it’s a loop. It’s the management loop!
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