Serenity for People Managers


Published Wed Aug 25 2021

*This article was kindly contributed by Yaniv Bernstein author of the People Engineering newsletter (subscribe here).


 

The inspiration for this post came from a series of questions put to me by Poorya Zaremoodi. Thanks!

Being a manager of people can be a very stressful job. For the first time in your working career, you have a direct moral and legal responsibility to look after the success and wellbeing of other people. People are complicated, and it is inevitable that as a manager you will find yourself quite frequently dealing with problems and challenges on the people side. Your natural inclination, of course, will be to try to fix them. It is, after all, your job.

This is a good sentiment, but one that (if one is not careful) can lead to burnout and underperformance in your job as manager. Spending time fixing the unfixable is a thankless and foolish errand.

Finding Serenity

Religious or not, one cannot help but find this prayer resonant:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference

This is known as the Serenity Prayer, and it is deep and profound.

It’s got things backwards though.

 

   

Those mountains aren’t going anywhere, so chilling out and just staring at them is definitely the wise move.

It Starts with Wisdom

Possessing the serenity and the courage is all well and good, but without the wisdom part it is all for nought.

Most managers I know have courage in spades. After all, they probably became managers in the first place because they demonstrated a superior degree of responsibility and accountability. Good managers wear the problems of their reports as their own problems, and so they should. The problem comes when I see managers struggling to change things that are simply not in their power to change. They possess the courage to change things, but not yet the wisdom to know what they can change; which leads, in turn to a serenity deficit.

The most common example I see is in the management of underperformance. It usually goes like this:

  1. A manager has an underperforming or misbehaving employee on their team.

  2. They lean in and try to help them improve their performance or conduct.

  3. When this is unsuccessful, and with the encouragement of HR, the employee is placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). This places a huge strain on both the manager and the employee.

  4. Whether or not the PIP is initially successful, the employee eventually reverts to their underperformance.

  5. The manager tries again, with increasing desperation and despair.

  6. Finally, after way too long, the employee is terminated.

  7. The manager feels a profound sense of guilt and failure.

This is a guaranteed serenity-killer for all concerned.

One Simple Trick

There are no short-cuts to attaining wisdom, but in the meantime there is one truth that, if used as a starting principle, can serve you as a manager in good stead:

You cannot force people to change

If you feel up to it, there is also a “strong” version of this conjecture:

People do not fundamentally change

In other words, just like a tree, people can grow but they cannot change who they are. Of course this one can be argued, but it is a pretty decent rule of thumb to use when deciding whether to head down the courage or serenity path.

Know When to Fold ‘em

Knowing whether a people problem is one that requires them to grow (possible) or change (impossible) is where the wisdom part comes in. For this there are no heuristics, and only hard-won wisdom can help you distinguish.

But that’s OK, because people problems tend to demonstrate diminishing returns: if your first intervention isn’t successful, then the likelihood of the second intervention succeeding is quite low, and even lower the third time. If you accept this to be true, then this leads to the following conclusion:

Do not overinvest in solving a people problem.

Give it a good try. You owe that to people. If you see somebody with a performance issue, you should be radically candid and very clear with your feedback and guidance. If, however, you do not see significant positive change after this, don’t spend too long trying again and again to solve the same problem: your courage will become foolishness and, worst of all, you will be diverting your attention from noticing and addressing other problems where your courage can be put to good use.

Every single manager I’ve spoken to (including me, I do tend to talk to myself quite a bit) who has ever had to let someone go expresses the same regret: “I wish I’d done it sooner”. That is the sound of wisdom being attained.

Welcome the serenity into your life, do it sooner, and don’t look back.


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