How to be a better manager with just one word

Have you ever had a bad manager?

I once had a boss who threw a block of Post-it notes at me. I also had one that, during client meetings, would get nervous and stick her two forefingers in her belly button. I could write a whole post about bad bosses, but honestly, other than the entertainment value of swapping horror stories, you probably wouldn’t get a lot out of it. 

No, today, we're talking about how to manage more efficiently. Because if you run a business, good management skills are essential. And while most of us aren’t throwing things at people or sticking our fingers in our belly buttons in front of clients, chances are, there's room for improvement.

To be clear, when I say “managers,” I’m not just referring to those who have employees. I’m also talking to project managers and solopreneurs who manage clients or suppliers. Really, the advice below is for anyone who manages relationships with other people

How to be a better manager with just one word

1. Set expectations

When I worked at my corporate job, I had an employee with whom I would brainstorm and share ideas during our weekly team meeting. We'd spend an hour every Tuesday morning discussing current projects, identifying next steps and laying out our action plan for the week. Sounds great, right? 

Not so fast. 

I'd always end these meetings feeling optimistic and motivated, only to find in the following Tuesday's meeting that half of the tasks I had thought I'd delegated hadn't been done.

I was perplexed. In my mind, I had given the guy clear instructions and laid out my expectations, yet week after week, when I asked him if he had done X, Y, and Z, he'd give me this deer-in-headlights look, followed by a sheepish, "Oh, I didn't realize you wanted me to do that."

I couldn't figure it out. Where was the disconnect?

2. Communicate clearly

In our next meeting, we were discussing our action items for the week and I was going over what needed to be done.

"Ok, so this week we need to finalize the draft of this press release, and then get the new advert approved. Oh yeah, and then we need to ask the Sales team to approve the budget for the trade show. Sound good?”

"Sounds good," he nodded back at me.

It was then that I noticed it: he hadn't written anything down on his to-do list. Normally during those meetings, when he had a new task, he'd jot it down on his list.

This time? Nothing.

"Um, not to micro-manage, but aren't you going to write those down?"

And there it was again: the deer-in-headlights look. 

"Write what down?"

"The tasks I just said you had to do this week."

"Oh, you want me to do those?"

I looked around the room bewildered. Was this a joke? Who else would I be talking to?

"Well I don't know," he stammered. "You kept saying "we" so I thought we'd be working on it together."

Ohhhhhhhh. That's when I learned one of the cardinal rules for communicating clearly: 

Stop saying 'we' when you mean 'you'.

3. Be direct

I've since noticed this habit a lot, and at the risk of alienating the guys: I've especially noticed women communicating like this. To be clear, not all women. My boss who threw things at me had nooo problem saying, "You need to do this." 

But many women (and, yes, some men too) have an inherent discomfort in being directive. I know I did. Even though we've earned the right to tell our employees or clients to do something, we still feel uncomfortable being so direct about it. 

We don't want to be "bossy," so instead we say things like, "We should...", "It'd be great if you could..." and "What do you think about doing..." But here's the thing: 

Telling employees or clients what to do is not 'bossy'-- it's your job.

If the quality of the work depends on certain expectations, it is your responsibility to make those expectations clear.

Don't feel comfortable being so directive? Practice. Try to listen to the way you communicate and correct yourself. That's what I had to do.

In the next team meeting, every time I caught myself saying, "We need to...," I stopped and said, "No, not we, you. I'd like you to..." I said it with a smile, I said please and thank you, but I also made damn sure there was no room for misinterpretation.

And you know what? As uncomfortable as it felt at first, he appreciated it.

Because let’s be honest, none of us wants to do a bad job. My employee didn't want to feel like he wasn't meeting expectations. He wasn’t trying to disappoint me. He wasn't purposefully ignoring my instructions, he just didn't understand them.

And that was 100% my fault.

And I get it, sometimes, you might just have a shitty employee who simply doesn't meet expectations. Those exist and they aren't all your fault. But before assuming any employee who doesn't do what you ask is shitty, make sure the way you are asking isn't contributing to the problem.

And please, get your fingers out of your belly button.