It’s called spending time for a reason

The brief text conversation went like this (Bill is not really called Bill):

Jonny: Hey Bill! Fancy a coffee tomorrow morning? Seems like we haven’t caught up in ages.

Bill: Hey Jonny! Yeah definitely! Stupid question, but I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?

Jonny: Umm, not at all… I just wanted to see how you are, it’s been a stressful week.

And so forth.

Most of us have been Bill in this conversation. We’ve felt that sinking feeling, that sneaking suspicion that the only reason our boss / mentor / manager would want to talk to us, to spend time with us, is because we’ve done something wrong.

And I suspect many of us have been that boss or mentor or manager. With barely enough time to do “real work”, how can we hope to fit in “manager stuff” on top of that? At this point I sheepishly raise my hand and look around the classroom. Well then.

Shame on all of us.

I’ve known so many great artists and programmers in my industry who have been “promoted” into being managers, because that is what one does, and that is how pay rises happen. You’ve probably seen similar, whatever your industry. And across the board, they often end up being miserable because actually they’re great artists and programmers and really that’s what they should be getting a pay rise for.

It may come as a shock, but being great at the job you trained to do does not automatically make you great at managing people who do the same job. People who do the promoting should also, hopefully, realise this.

So what can we do? Well, let’s stop promoting the wrong people in the wrong way, but ensure we pay them right, regardless. Reward them for what they are great at.

It’s important to note that communication structure and management structure are different beasts. Sometimes the two get confused. Some (justifiably) fear the weight of reporting hierarchies, and “flatten” the organisation. This can be a great decision, but what often happens is that people management (c.f. people care) gets flattened too, and, well, forgotten.

Now, there are many positives to a flat organisation: everyone feels free to communicate with anyone else about how to get things done, these things get done quickly and your inclusive, approachable culture grows quickly too. But, caveat auctor: You have to work hard to keep your flatness actually flat. Valve Software is famously flat, but it’s a safe bet there are a number of people paddling very hard beneath the surface to keep it all working.

Join me on a short journey down one possible life of your flat organisation. Firstly, no matter what, realise there will be at least 2 layers in your flat organisation; Layer 1 being the bosses or founders, with Layer 2 being the everyone else. And the “everyone else” knows this, but it’s ok because Layer 1 have the stresses of being Layer 1, they’ve “earned it” perhaps, and after all the buck really stops with them.

But the problem really is that of course Layer 1 has friends outside of Layer 1. And so the friends of Layer 1 get a little bit more involved by virtue of just being in the right places and conversations. And over time these coteries become cliques, subtly and quietly, and without really realising it your Layer 1 is now the bosses and the founders and a few others. And Layer 2 is still the everyone else.

So, the the buck stops with Layer 1, but now Layer 1 contains new members. And they don’t have the weight of responsibility on their shoulders; a rift forms and Layer 1 becomes the In and Layer 2 is the Out.

Your flat organisation doesn’t seem so flat now, does it?

So your flat-but-not-flat structure, even in the best of setups, is not always helpful in your employees’ professional development. As an employee I ask many questions of myself, notably “Why won’t the game stop crashing?” and “How did this code ever make sense ever?”. But I also ask these questions of myself: How do I improve? Who do I get approval from? Who is making sure I’m doing my job well? What do I have to do to get a payrise? How am I performing in comparison with everyone else?

What are your expectations of me?

And this is the crucial question. Because really, almost everyone wants to be validated. I’m doing a job in exchange for a wage, am I doing it well? And doesn’t it sound ridiculous — even embarrassing— for the employee to be the one asking this question? How did it get to the point that they don’t even know if they’re doing well? At the very least, it’s rather un-British. In a small company, it’s often expected that my work is so exciting and so enthralling that it is its own reward. And mostly this is the case. But how do you know when it’s not? And why wait until then?

I’m not saying I’m a great manager, I’m not exactly super organised and I’m probably not good at setting personal goals and all that stuff you’re supposed to do. But, here’s the thing I believe is the single most important part of management: Actually caring.

Like, really caring for someone’s well being. Taking her out for a coffee because she just seems to be stressed, and being genuinely interested in her welfare. Asking her questions about life, not because you’re prying but because she’s a person and if there’s one thing we definitely share, it’s humanity.

And it may not always be the easiest thing to do: you’ve got your own work and your own deadlines, and maybe your own boss breathing down your neck. And so making time to look after someone else, to care for them and validate them and help them develop, can be costly.

As I said in my last post, I don’t want robots. This is a life you’re affecting, and you’ve got a chance in your own little way to make it better. It’s calledspending time for a reason, and it’s worth it.

Mike Green

Glowmade Ltd, 77 Walnut Tree Close, Guildford, England, GU1 4UH