Your New Audience

August 10, 2007

This is the second posting in a group of commentaries that may or may not end up in the book, but which I thought might be of interest.

Shall I crack any of those old jokes, master,
At which the audience never fail to laugh?

Aristophanes (450 BC – 388 BC) Frogs, 405 B.C.

Getting a promotion, especially your first promotion to management, is a great ego boost. Even though it is de rigueur to feign modesty and pretend it’s not a big change, it really is. You will no doubt feel unsure about some aspects of the new job, but combined with that will be an awareness that you have been chosen as someone worthy of the challenge.

When I first became a manager, I felt more powerful, more articulate, and more humorous. While I also felt some uncertainty, I found that my interactions with my team went very well and that it was easy to talk and joke with them.

That glow persisted until I gave a talk about my new team’s work at a meeting of managers, every one of whom was senior to me. I started off with a humorous anecdote, which was greeted with silence. I soldiered on with a couple of “sure-fire” quips that my team had thought were hilarious. No reaction, except for a few signs of impatience. This was before the days of laptops, so my audience couldn’t fire up solitaire or read their email. Instead, they fidgeted, sighed, and started looking for anything else to occupy their time. At that point, I dropped any further attempt at humor, finished my presentation as quickly as possible, and then retreated to lick my wounds and figure out where my skill for repartee had gone.

It didn’t take long to realize that I hadn’t changed as much as I thought I had. My sense of humor and my skill, or lack thereof, for witty banter were both essentially unchanged. What had changed was my audience.

I made two mistakes. First, I misjudged my audience. A group of managers listening to another manager doesn’t want to be entertained. They want a brief, to the point, presentation that includes only the things they absolutely need to know.

My second mistake was misunderstanding the reason for my sudden reincarnation as a management Robin Williams. I wasn’t any funnier, I had simply gained an audience, my new team, that had a strong incentive to please me. Once I was in front of an audience that didn’t have the same incentive, I was right back where I started.

The lesson here is that once you become a manager, you will never be treated the same as you were when you were a worker bee. Your jokes will become funnier, people will agree with you more often, and they will be more likely to defer to your judgement. If you knew the members of your new team before you became their manager, you might see this change; if not, you may never notice it.

What can you do about this? Generally, understanding the problem is half of the solution. If you understand the power relationship between managers and employees and if you take some time to consider the way you have interacted with your own managers, you will have most of the information you need. Here are a few specific suggestions:

  • Recognize that your relationship to your team as manager will always be different than if you were a peer on the team. Regardless of what you do, you are still the boss and that means you can’t be “one of the guys.
  • Even though you can’t be “one of the guys,” take the time to be friendly with your team. Unless you’re in the Marines, the days of the autocratic manager are over. There’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, with schmoozing with your team, going out to eat and drink with them, and generally being friendly and accessible.
  • Recognize that your actions will be scrutinized and amplified by your team. This is especially true when it comes to criticism. If you ever criticize someone for raising an issue, you can be sure that you will not hear about other issues.
  • Treat positive feedback with skepticism and encourage constructive criticism. If someone criticizes one of your ideas, take the criticism seriously, and even if you don’t agree, make it clear that you appreciate, and won’t punish, constructive criticism.
  • Make it clear that you want to hear about issues and problems early. To me, mistakes are expected and call for examination rather than punishment. The only time I get angry about a mistake is when it is concealed from me, or I hear about it too late to do anything about it.
  • Be aware that you will be out of the loop on many issues that you previously knew about. No matter how good you are at building a strong relationship with your team, things will happen that you will never hear about unless you remain alert and pay attention to what’s going on around you.
  • Be yourself. Yes, you need to be careful about what you ask for, since your actions and words will be scrutinized, but don’t feel like you need to become another person to be a manager.
  • Treat the people who were formerly your peers with the same respect as before. I have met a couple of managers who were friendly and helpful when they were peers, but became cool and distant once they moved up a level in the organization. None of them were effective managers, at least in part because everyone below them in the hierarchy saw their duplicity and lost faith in them as managers.

Doing these things won’t turn back the clock; once you’re in management, you are different. But, you will be much more likely to get accurate and honest feedback from your team, and to be able to distinguish truth from puffery.


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