“I don’t know how to manage people”

Background

Ever caught yourself saying it? “I’m good at what I do, but I suck at managing people”, or “I don’t really want to be a manager, I want to do actual stuff”, etc.?

If the answer is NO, I hate to inform you that this article is definitely not made for you and that you should leave. NOW.

If the answer is YES, then – welcome! You are most certainly not alone here!

Your profile

Let me go out of boundary here and try guessing your profile first.

I would say you are most likely in your late 20s, or early to mid 30s. You are probably doing a kind of job where you are solely responsible for the quality of work that you are producing (e.g. programming, design, marketing, writing, etc.) and, I would finally guess, you are most likely very good at it. A specialist, if I may say.

Does that sound like you? Or close enough? I’d bet it does!

Why this assumption? Well, it’s a wild guess for sure, but it simply fits the profile of all the people I’ve spoken to, who expressed this management concern. Myself included!

Real-life story

Let me tell you an actual story that played out not so long ago.

I was sitting in a cafe with a very good friend of mine, who also happens to be an insanely good developer. He has been programming for over 10 years now and is simply one of those top 3% guys that you’d name when you think of all the great programmers that you know. That kind of guy.

One thing that I always admired in him, besides his expertise in programming, was how he communicated to his peers and how he helped set goals and expectations with other colleagues. He is very direct, always has a solid vision and is not afraid to speak his mind. I admired him for these traits, but I guess I never voiced them out loud.

“We’ve been looking for a new Technical Director for a while now man”, he said, “but we just can’t find anything solid”. “Well, why don’t YOU apply for the position?”, I asked. “Nah man, I’m really great at programming, but I don’t know how to manage people”. I swear, my brain rebooted three times in a row.

“What do you mean ‘you don’t know how to manage people?’ You are a great programmer, amazingly clear and direct communicator, and you are not afraid to lead a difficult conversation. That makes you a PERFECT fit for the position!”. This actually puzzled him for a sec. “That’s interesting, I never thought about it in that way”.

Funny enough, neither did I. Until then at least. But six months later, and here I am, writing a blog post about it.

Why are we so anxious about it?

Yep, that’s right. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and one of the conclusions that I came to is that we are just scared of the unknown. Anxious, to be more precise.

“I don’t know how to manage people”, “I don’t want to be a manager, “I want to do actual stuff” and “I don’t want to bullshit and bother people”. Ever heard one of those? This is usually how we, the specialists, see people in managerial positions. God forbid if you’re on a C-level (e.g. CEO, CTO, etc.). That probably puts you in a “drink cocktail and bullshit whole day” category for us.

The truth is – we don’t really know. And how the hell should we know, if we never tried it before? But the trick is in the fact that it’s a big unknown. And we are wired to be anxious about unknowns (as you can imagine, I’m trying real hard not to drift off discussing the evolutionary benefits of this).

Specialists + Unknowns = Overwhelm

This is exactly what I think the deal is. On day one at your work you probably very much sucked at whatever it is that you were doing. Be it programming, design, marketing, writing, or just about anything, you most certainly sucked. But you didn’t care, because you were “allowed” to suck. The stakes were pretty low because you were junior.

But the time passes. And you get better at it. And if you never shifted towards the managerial waters, you probably spent 5 – 10 years improving your craftsmanship.

You know what also increases with the time? The stakes! Yeah, the better you become, the higher the expectation bar is set. And if you’re like me, you probably enjoy being good at something, right? Everybody loves being an expert and being respected for it!

But then, the point comes when your manager (hopefully) recognises that you should share your knowledge with young padawans. They start steering you towards the managerial / lead roles and, unless you were prepared for it, the panic arises! “I don’t know how to manage people. I want to do actual stuff!”. You’re freaking out.

What’s really happening here?

I actually heard a perfect metaphor for this. Every situation that you face in your life is like an onion. The more you peel it down, the more teary you become.

If we peel couple layers off, what we actually have is a person who is amazingly good at what they are doing, now being faced with something they never did before. They are at the risk of losing the reputation that they’ve worked so hard to build, because, this is something that they never tried before! And who wants to go back to square one and being at a junior level, after having invested 5-10 years of hard work, right?

That, in my opinion, is exactly what’s at stake here – our reputation and the risk of sucking at something new! And we’d rather avoid that and stick to what’s familiar. At least most of us πŸ™‚

It’s ok to suck

Let me put this bluntly before I proceed any further. It is, undeniably and unquestionably OK to suck at something that you never did before! Let me say that again – it’s absolutely OK to suck at stuff you never tried before!

It seems like I can’t write a single article without referencing one of my older posts – Do something that you suck at. If you never read it, I’d strongly urge you to check it out.

Anyway, my point is that your superior is probably aware of this already, and it’s likely that they’ve gone through the same tango earlier in their career. So you are, hopefully, not expected to give A+ performance the day one.

But!

And there’s always that “but”. It’s OK to suck, but, it’s not OK to use that as an excuse not to get better at it!

Just go back to day one when you started your work. You sucked, right? But you were OK with it because you knew that it’s OK to suck and you were eager to get better at it. Well, the same strategy applies here as well. Just like with anything else in life really – you start from square one and you rinse & repeat until you improve your game. 5 – 10 years later and you are, hopefully, A+ again. At that time, you’re probably going to google for “I don’t know how to be C-level executive” πŸ™‚

Most important thing that I learned on “people management”

If I summarised everything that I’ve read, learned and heard about over all these years, it’d boil down to one really simple sentence – You are NOT supposed to manage people.

Yep, you’ve read that right. People are not a flock of sheep or a commodity to be managed. Every single teammate of yours is a conscious, living being with their own set of ideas, desires and thoughts on how to get something achieved.

There surely are areas where you can force people to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it. Sure. I haven’t checked the dictionary though, but I’d say the word for that is not management, but slavery. And nobody likes being a slave!

Your job is to set goals and help people achieve them

That’s right. You are not supposed to “manage people” but to “manage goals & expectations”. You are supposed to explain to people where you want to go (the destination), to ensure that they have necessary tools & skills and, believe it or not, to either join them or get the f*ck out of their way!

Sounds so simple and easy, right? It sure is “simple”, but “easy”? Absolutely not. And that’s where you will most likely suck. Maybe even big time! But it’s your responsibility to train and educate yourself enough so that you get better and better over time.

Resources that I found useful

Discussing what I learned so far, along with all the mistakes and f*ckups I made would probably make for a whole article, if not even a series of articles. Give me couple more years and it’ll be a whole book. But I’ll trim it down to some of the most interesting resources & ideas that I’ve stumbled along.

I’ll go with some resources first:

  1. Extreme Ownership – this is a book that you might even have heard of before. It is a piece written by two retired U.S. Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin where they discuss the leadership lessons that they learned as commanders of SEAL teams. I actually even went as far as noting down all the important lessons that I picked from this book, so you could imagine how much I enjoyed it. If you have some minutes to spare, here’s my Goodreads review of it. P.S. The follow-up version (The Dichotomy of leadership) is nowhere good as this one, so feel free to skip it.
  2. The Phoenix Project – if you’ve ever heard of “CIO” meaning “Career Is Over” (instead of “Chief Information Officer”), well, that comes from this book. This is just one of those books that your manager has probably read, because it was suggested by his manager, who got this as a suggestion from their manager. Also one of those books that, as you read it, you start wondering if somebody wrote a book about yourself! Just an amazing read and, here’s my Goodreads review as well.
  3. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – yet another gem that, along with The Phoenix project, I literally read within 5 days. One of the most mind-blowing things I’ve learned here is that “Conflicts are GOOD thing!”. Here’s my full review.
  4. Difficult Conversations – you know, I’m one of those people who used to be shit-scared of conflicts and difficult conversations. Well, after reading this book, I’m just scared but I chose to do them now. One of the essential books in a toolbox. I never wrote a review for it but I did extract some lessons that I might publish as a separate blog post
  5. Tools of Titans – this book is like one of those vegan bundles that you keep buying for others and farting about day and night. I’ve read it THREE times, cover to cover, and I’ll probably keep re-reading it forever. What I really love about this book is that it takes all the people who we see as successful and distills them to basics. And what you learn out of those basics is that they themself suck(ed) at whatever it is that they are doing, but they just accepted it and kept sucking until they didn’t suck any more. Of course, here’s my review of it.

I think that’s a good starter kit for now. I’d also additionally recommend podcasts with Jocko Willink, David Goggins and Andy Stumpf. I also liked listening to guys who just experience “sucking at stuff” as a fun thing to do. If you’re into niche like that, search for podcasts with Jesse Itzler (he wrote a cool book – Living with a SEAL, which is an amazing read!) and Dan Bilzerian.

Conclusion

We are all scared of the unknowns. Especially if we spent number of years improving our skillset and becoming the expert in what we do. Losing the throne for something that we might suck hard time at can be a scary thing to do. Yet, if we realise that it’s OK to start from scratch and that we can actually educate ourselves upfront, we’re already halfway there to becoming great at this as well! Plus, you need to remember that your job is NOT to manage people but to set clear goals and provide resources and assistance for people to achieve them. Hence it boils down to having a vision, clear communication and patience to (re)learn that every beginning sucks, but we get better over time. Good luck!

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