Becoming A Better Manager

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A few days ago, as I was approaching the time for my scheduled mid-year performance review, I joked on Twitter that it’s a shame that my boss has to repeat himself every time we do a performance review.

I was only half-joking. Because it’s true. He does repeat himself. Every boss I’ve had has had to repeat him or herself. In an attempt to improve my “performance”, they’re always trying to get me to do something I either don’t do today, or don’t do very well.

It’s not that I can’t learn to do those things better. I don’t want to.

There are three levers a boss can pull to get me to change:

1) Plead with me. This generally doesn’t work, although I must admit I sometimes do what he asks me to for his sake, not for mine. I feel bad that I make him repeat himself, so I throw him a bone, and do something he asks.

2) Reward me. Believe it or not, this doesn’t work very well. What am I really going to see monetarily for changing my behavior? Two or three thousand dollars more a year? Not only is that not enough to motivate me to do things I don’t want to do, it misses an important point: Money simply isn’t my main motivator. (Apologies to my wife and kids).

3) Fire me. Go ahead. I’m actually delusional enough to believe that I’ll find another job in a reasonable amount of time.

In becoming a better manager, you’ve got to mentally calculate two scores regarding your subordinates: 1) their LAP score, and 2) their Freedom score.

LAP is an acronym for Look, Act, Perform. Like it or not, every boss has a mental picture of how s/he wants any particular subordinate to look, act, and perform. Sometimes these expectations are encoded in one’s performance metrics, but, in my experience, all of the mental expectations around LAP are never fully elaborated.  (There is the possibility that the boss’ LAP expectations are wrong or unrealistic, but we can’t deal with that problem here).

Now I hate to burst your coddled little bubbles, but there are precious few people (more specifically, knowledge worker types) — maybe 10% — that score really highly on the LAP dimension. Most of us are simply above average (that was a joke — if you don’t get it, look up Lake Woebegon). Seriously, though, we all tend to score higher on the formal assessments we have to go through — but many of these reviews simply don’t capture all of the boss’ expectations.

The other score to take into account is the Freedom score. This score is based on the extent to which an individual truly has and needs freedom to do what he or she wants to do, likes what s/he is doing, and is good at it. Maybe one in five of us score very highly on this. Our freedom to do exactly — and only — what we want is continually being challenged by bosses, clients, etc.

And we all have varying levels of acceptance with varying levels of freedom. I don’t think most of my bosses have really understood this: I do what I do because I need a very high level of freedom. I understand the tradeoff. I could never be one of those guys on Wall Street sitting in front of a trading screen all day — even if I could make a million dollars a year doing so.

Putting the two dimensions together yields the matrix below, with my (non-scientific) estimate of how many people fall into each box. The reality is that most of us are in the middle — decent performers with a decent level of freedom.

Comparative matrix chart indicating people's conform with freedom and acceptance

Show me somebody who scores really high on both dimensions, and I’ll show you a candidate to be CEO of your firm. Show me somebody who scores highly on LAP but low on Freedom, and I’ll show you someone about to find a job with another company. Show me somebody who scores really low on both dimensions and I’ll show you someone about to be shown the door at their company.

Here’s what makes managing so hard: In an attempt to raise someone’s performance (i.e., LAP score), managers are often inclined to take actions that reduce the subordinate’s Freedom score. This is where the Law of Unintended Consequence kicks in. With someone like me, reducing my Freedom score is likely to reduce my LAP score.

The hard part of managing is that managers have to figure out when to adjust their expectations, and when to reduce freedom.

An interesting thing happened in this most recent review session: My boss realized that he likes to do some of the things I really hate doing, and he suggested that if he do those things, he could then turn them over to me to see it through to completion — which I’d be more than happy to do.

I may be able to improve my LAP score, after all.

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