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How can we motivate managers?

Here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about management. An elder in Renaissance Italy comes up to Michelangelo one day and says, “Congratulations! You’re such a great artist, we’re promoting you! Forget about painting, you’re now in charge of procuring canvases and supervising the other artists.”

It’s absurd, laughable, but for some of us it hits uncomfortably close to home. I’ve been thinking recently about one of the questions it raises: motivating managers.

People who do actual work, whether they build houses or trade stocks or play music or teach, all have something in common. They see the results of their work. The end product may take months or years, but they see some concrete progress every day, and that feedback is powerfully motivating.

Managers don’t have that luxury. As a manager, your job is to enable other people. You don’t do much real work yourself, so you don’t get the same positive feedback. You can’t touch a cabinet you built, or play back a killer performance you caught on tape, or see your student’s eyes light up when they finally get it. Your employees get those morale-boosting endorphins, not you.

This is especially true for middle managers. Execs spend their time making decisions, fighting fires, and hopefully shaping strategy. Middle managers, on the other hand, spend most of their time on project and people management. It’s a common joke that middle managers have all of the accountability but none of the power. The kicker is, they also miss the concrete feedback that gets other people out of bed in the morning and working through crunch time.

So, what can we do about this? Is there some visible result, some Kafkaesque spark for managers comparable to a carpenter’s finished cabinet or a teacher’s straight A student?

Maybe that spark is their team, and the work they do. Probably not though. It’s easy to see a day’s work on a cabinet, or teaching a pupil, but a day’s effort managing a team is pretty much invisible. It takes months or years to see measurable changes, which isn’t nearly enough to get you out of bed every morning.

Some people say you shouldn’t be a full time manager in the first place. They advocate that managers also do normal work alongside their employees, on top of their management duties. That can definitely keep the positive feedback flowing, but critics claim that “working managers” often feel pressured to keep up with their employees and fall behind on their management tasks, or worse, overwork and burn out.

Maybe the problem isn’t the job but the people doing it. This was the first moral I got from the Michelangelo story: management is a different thing entirely, and should be treated as such. What if we judged construction foremen on team building and Gantt charts instead of traditional building and engineering skills? What if we recruited detail oriented extroverts to be managers, instead of the employees on their teams?

Unfortunately, managers usually need a solid background in their field. There’s no real shortcut for that; you have to earn it the hard way, by working in the field for years on end.

This leaves us back where we started. Michelangelo may not have been cut out for middle management, but seeing his progress on the Sistine Chapel each day must have been incredibly motivating. Managers deserve that kind of feedback too. How can they get it?

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11 thoughts on “How can we motivate managers?

  1. totally! i definitely had valve in mind when i wrote the “working manager” section of this post. it even links to abrash’s popular recent blog post.

    i expect we’ll still have traditional managers around for a while though, if not always, so I’m still curious how to keep them motivated. via Facebook

  2. I think as a manager, you feel good when your team gets along super well in a gelled fashion, or when one of your proteges grows quickly and is night-and-day different a year later, or when your team just looks happy at work and you know they are happy. via Facebook

  3. It’s one of the oldest stories around; someone who is very good at their job is promoted to management, which they find they are not good at and don’t enjoy. Eventually they leave. The company loses a good employee and has the trauma of their unsuccessful foray into management.

    Some companies at good at avoiding this trap. At least the scenario is well enough known now.

  4. I think, it is important to understand that almost everyone is self-motivated in the direction of their choosing. If a person has honestly chosen at the correct time to be manager and feels he can do a good job, then he definitely can find problems to solve. And solving problems does give motivation. I think, the issue at hand sometimes is people do not realize this and try to motivate another person than himself.

  5. I think that part of the problem is that when you become a manager, you’re trading “Excellence” for “Scale.”

    When you’re a single worker, creating or doing whatever you do, you can strive for the highest level of excellence in that work. That is usually very personally rewarding, because you see the results of your work each day, and since you retain full control over your work, you have the potential to create things of the highest possible quality.

    But when you manage, you’re guiding and crafting the work of others. That means that you’re scaling what you do– you are going beyond the personal impact that you can have, and instead are finding ways to harness the impact of others, whether that’s two folks, ten, or ten thousand.

    At scale, you can’t control the individual work as much. It’s not a great way to create a single great work of art. But, because of the influence you have, you can potentially do things that impact far more people. To wit, think about the impact of the Medici family, or particularly, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Who really had a bigger impact on the world, Michelangelo or the leader of Medici family?

    For that matter, as funny and poignant as your anecdote is, I wonder what Michelangelo’s legacy would have been if he did actually devote his life to supervising and leading other artists, say with a new guild or studio. What other works might we have then? What new trends or revolutions might he have started?

    Now, more to your point: about motivating managers. The answer that I have found is that the motivating events are there– they just take much, much longer to happen. Managing is a slow thing. You usually don’t have any impact until you’ve been on the job for a year or more. And I don’t think I felt I started to get any positive feedback and motivating until I was two or so years in.

    Now I’ve done the job long enough that I expect the feedback (and motivation) to take that long to show up. But, when it does happen– when I feel that I’ve been able to make someone’s work life happier, or when I’ve been able to help a team deliver something they might not have otherwise– it means the world me.

  6. I have found that motivation comes as long as you are still growing and being creative.

  7. Rands talks about this in his post A Precious Hour:

    The positive feedback an engineer receives in the Zone is the sensation that you literally performed magic. From the complete problem set in your mind combined with your weapons-grade focus, you build a thing that you immediately recognize as disproportionately valuable. And you see this value instantaneously – that’s the high.

    I believe that leads and managers are forever chasing the high associated with the Zone, but rarely achieve them because their job responsibilities are in direct contradiction to the requirements to achieve it.

    The Faux-Zone…is a place intended to create the same rewarding sense of productivity and satisfaction as the Zone, but it is an absolutely fake Zone complete with the addictive mental and chemical feedback, but there is little creative value.

    As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others…However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone…the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

    He has lots of other good essays on related topics, too, in a style reminiscent of Joel Spolsky.

  8. Being an uncle, skilled at an hourly rate keeps finite thoughts simple. In the realm of imagination thoughts are infinite void of rules. A manager/teacher is bound by guidelines. To think outside of the proverbial box is double edged, with ethics and profits being the restraints and goals. One’s perception of an exceptional manager/teacher is when the pulse of the team/classroom is known along with strength level of the employes/students.

    Here is a paraphrased example from the series, The Wire. A police officer changed his profession to a math teacher. The students had interests other than math. They shot craps in the back of the classroom. This is when the students became the teacher and the teacher became the student. Learning the interest of the pupils, a suggestion of how to win was offered. The students asked how. So began the teaching of statistics and the laws of probability. By opening this door a foundation is built allowing the student an opportunity to choose a new profession.

    Moral, ethical, and societal boundaries are being tested. It’s now 2000+ and the evolution is occurring. Ecentricities are showing their faces becoming as acceptable as bread and butter. Know the base foundation still has governing laws of what will and will not support a structure. As far as laws go, a judge knows the laws. An exceptional judge knows the laws along with how to interpret them.

    It has been said being in the zone is where creativity activates the endorphins at the aha moment. To motivate, to arouse behavior to a goal, manager/teachers first become the employees/students by finding their zone. Apply this to the rungs of a ladder, wait and see what happens. Use caution, if the desire of gratification is to be instantaneous, go buy it. To achieve sustained satisfaction, remember that sand in an hourglass takes an hour to pass. What is done during this hour, well that’s up to you.

    Me, I am a human, sainthood is off my radar. I stub my toe from time to time and as it passes I stub my toe less often. My favorite zone is imagination where all things are possible.

  9. Some people make great managers but that level of responsibility isn’t right for everyone. Some people are natural leaders in their team regardless of their title and the biggest key for any business is having the right person in the right role.

    A tough decision is how do you handle the situation where someone who has been promoted to a management role and found it wasn’t suitable to them. They may have originally wanted the role but been overwhelmed by the responsibility. Some people may find it difficult to step down again from management but they shouldn’t be made to feel like this is a failure because frankly Management isn’t for everyone and especially in the current climate every business needs it’s best people in the role which suits them best.

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