The Creative Act of… Management

February 11, 2020

Creativity is likely not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the qualities of a great manager. Most of our associations with the word run in the opposite direction. Management is about driving performance, running systems, ensuring tasks get completed, reporting, prioritization, and, of course, attending a lot of meetings. There’s another C-word that we have a much stronger association with the word management: control.

We have to start by accepting deeply and getting the message as leaders and managers, that a world of control is not a world employees want to be a part of, at least not for long. No single factor is the only factor when it comes to complex issues like attrition, engagement, or retaining top talent, but employees feeling like they are in a box that they can’t get out of is a big one.

That’s why everyone these days is talking about feedback, about the need for managers to become coaches to their team, to be as skilled at developing people as they are at developing software (or marketing campaigns, or financial forecasts, etc.). Because if you can’t develop your people, then you don’t really have a team: you have a leader who is disempowering their team whether they intend to or not.

How do we shift the mindset — what would it look like to lead people from a place of curiosity rather than one of control (or attempting and perpetually failing to.? It turns out that developing people, and unlocking a level of performance on your team that you might not even imagine is possible, is a creative act. In fact, it’s an act of creation in three parts:

  • Act 1 — How do you, as a people leader, create space? What do you need to let go of? What signals do you need to send, or stop sending? What questions do you need to ask? What self-reflection do you need to do? How do you overcome the near-existential tendency to micromanage, especially when you’re under stress?
  • Act 2 — Once you’ve opened up some space between you and one of your reports, how do you create a frame for what growth looks like? If you’re going to let go, that means they are going to have to step up. What does that look like that’s different than how they’re showing up today? Is it more technical work? Of course not. What you need is for them to become their next better version of self. How do you talk about that without violating the boundaries of work?
  • Act 3 — Once you’ve created a frame for growth, how do you give feedback to that person that keeps them opening up instead of tending to shut them down? How do you create ongoing dialogue by being able to name what you see, to stand for your value as a leader who knows or sees something they may not at that moment, in a way that isn’t ham-handed or ignorant of unavoidable personal bias?

It’s these three creative acts — which take years to master but can make a difference from day one — that gives people the unmistakable experience that you take the people development part of your job as seriously as you take the technical part.

Where would you rather work? Which manager would you stay three months longer for? What environment is the one where you are more likely to engage with your work beyond what needs to be done, to take a risk, even a small one? Is it a world of control or one based in curiosity?

The employee engagement numbers don’t change year after year. Is it any wonder?

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