There are all sorts of books out there telling people how to be better managers – do these 5 things (e.g., “expect excellence”), etc. But having both been a manager and been managed for many years in lots of different organizations, I think it really boils down to one key thing: being mindful.
In other words, pay attention – to the people and situations around you, and to your own words and actions. Are they serving you and others well? Not surprisingly, serving others reverberates; studies show that employees who are happy are also more productive.
So, for example, as a manager, when someone has done a good job or gone out of their way to help you, do you take the time to notice, acknowledge, and thank them? Do you take the time to review their work and offer feedback? Do you show interest in what they care about?
Or, when you’re feeling stressed or irritable, do you snap at the people who work for you, or suggest the problem you’re having is their fault? The instinct to blame is common, and perhaps natural, given that it’s painful to acknowledge our responsibility for a bad situation and difficult to accept that sometimes things just go awry. But if the blame is unwarranted, as it often is, it generates the kind of resentment that’s toxic to any workplace. I’ve seen this in clients, where managers can’t understand why they have such high employee turnover, yet don’t stop to think about what their own behavior is contributing. The result is often chronic problems caused by inexperienced and poorly trained employees, because no one sticks around long enough either to do the job or to show new people the ropes. Those who do stick around are often so scared that they’re competing with new employees rather than helping to train them.
Of course, treating people mindfully sounds like a no-brainer. And studies have even shown that “the more mindful the leader, the lower the employee’s emotional exhaustion,” leading to “better overall job performance ratings of the employee,” according to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. But I’m repeatedly amazed at how often such a simple practice is just not done. Although the concept of mindfulness has become popular in recent years, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the rungs of upper management in many organizations. And to be fair, it’s not easy; it’s not what most of us were trained to do. So, many managers, facing their own pressures, often disregard their impact on other people, or don’t even bother to consider that the people who work for them are other people. And it brings the whole organization down.
In a recent radio interview, the makers of the new documentary The Hand That Feeds, which follows an organizing effort by workers at an Upper East Side Manhattan store of the Hot and Crusty restaurant chain, said the real reason the workers formed a union and went on strike was largely because managers never said “please” and “thank you.” It wasn’t just the poor wages and conditions; it was that they felt disrespected.
While we don’t all run offices or restaurants or other organizations, to some degree, we’re all managers, at least of our own lives, and can be more mindful of our impact on others. Each day involves interaction with other people — from the person next to you on the train to the worker behind the take-out counter where you get your lunch to the receptionist who minds the company’s front desk. To that extent, we all have an opportunity to be more mindful – and to appreciate its impact.
It reminds me of a line in a poem by Jack Kerouac I came across the other day on the site Brainpickings: “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you are already in heaven now.”