I work in an industry (engineering) where senior managers are never really trained or coached to actually be senior managers. Most of them began their careers as technical minions (where I am in my career at the moment) and with time and experience they got promoted into managerial posts where they have to oversee and supervise a bunch of minions. However, I doubt that any of them, when they were young and still students at university, ever dreamed of managing their own little cohort of minions and running a mini-kingdom.
In principle I have no problem with promoting someone experienced into a senior position and expecting them to mentor and supervise a group of juniors. However, most of these managers come from technical backgrounds and have little to zero “people skills.” They are extremely knowledgable when it comes to technical matters and solving technical problems, but present them with a real-life, human, emotional problem, and often they will falter and their interventions end up making matters worse.
How to solve this?
I’m a big fan of training and, although I haven’t done any research in this area, I’m sure that a bit of training in psychology can only be of benefit to managers. Maybe some organisations already do this (I wouldn’t know – I’m but a lowly minion and not due for a promotion any time soon) but before an employee is promoted or employed into a more senior, managerial position, he/she should be sent on a compulsory human resource management course. These courses should teach things like: conflict resolution techniques, psychology 101, how to provide career mentoring and guidance, and so on. Managers with technical backgrounds have absolutely no idea how to dissolve conflict within a team, and I’ve come across my fair share of seniors who sucked at giving me career advice and mentorship. (Ironically, the best mentoring I’ve received were from seniors who were not my managers or supervisors.)
2. Get to know the individuals
It’s very easy to generalise and stereotype the minions in a team. Don’t. Managers should always remember the time they first interviewed the minions, or when they first met the minions. Although people in a team may all be working together on a single project and have similar backgrounds, training, and experience, they are all still individuals with individual needs. One should never assume that a group of technical people working together have the same strengths, interests or career goals. Many managers with technical backgrounds (like engineering managers) struggle with this, and consequently I would recommend that managers simply take some time to observe and notice their team members. Notice what they wear, their body language, how they write e-mails, and how they engage with others in the team. Humans are terrible at masking their body language, so armed with Psychology 101 and by just paying a little bit more attention, one can quickly identify the team mates who are insecure and in need of more coaching or training, the ones who are bored and in need of more challenges or responsibility, and the ones who are happy, confident, and flourishing. If observation during normal working hours is not your thing or too difficult, trying having a group coffee hour once every two weeks and then try and notice the individuals and their individual traits. If you’re unsure about your minions’ career goals, talk to them about it. After all, that should be worked into their Key Performance Indicators somewhere, so it’s always a useful conversation to have anyway.
3. Don’t be a control freak
I’ve had many bosses who were too perfectionistic, too pedantic, and too set in their ways. As a more senior person you are naturally assumed to be more knowledgeable and experienced, but be warned: you are probably also older and more resistant to new ideas. Fair enough – txt spk in e-mails and professional documents is unacceptable, but realise that your younger underlings may have new tricks up their sleeves that you could learn from. Give them a chance to put their new methods to use, and if it backfires, be the bigger person and handle the failure graciously. But whatever you do – try not to restrict the growth of your minions. As a minion, there is nothing worse than feeling suffocated by a boss and feeling that the only way to do things is the boss’s way.
4. Always remember the bigger picture
The performance and success of senior managers are, usually, determined by the size of the profit margin or the number of tenders won or the number of projects successfully closed or a combination of these things. Metrics like “minion happiness” or “minion job satisfaction” may be evaluated, but they are never seriously considered when the performance of a manager is determined. I could be wrong – maybe these metrics are indeed taken seriously in some organisations – but in the engineering, technical field, I have a suspicion that these “soft” metrics are hardly ever taken seriously. After all, it is much easier to draw objective comparisons on the sizes of profit margins than it is to compare subjective ratings on job satisfaction. However, what I believe many managers forget, is that happy employees are productive employees, which in turn will (and, generally, do) realise bigger profit margins and more successes. Therefore the primary focus for a manager should not be the nitty gritty technical details of the work, but the more human, softer elements of team cohesion, happiness, and job satisfaction. Sure, work is work (else it would’ve been called “party” or “vacation”) but managers should try to remember the bigger picture and not exclusively focus on deliverables and deadlines and hours booked and profits made.
Lastly – a word of advice to my fellow minions:
If you’re unhappy in your workplace, do something about it. Life is much too short to be miserable for 8 hours a day for roughly 250 days a year. If you feel you lack training or exposure, speak to your manager about it. If you are struggling to work with a team mate, speak to your manager about it. If you are having a problem with your manager, explore alternatives within your organisation and consult your organisation’s HR for help. Yes, it will be awkward and uncomfortable to talk about these things and confront the issues head on, but in the end you will end up happier and feeling more fulfilled professionally while your manager will have a happier, more productive and more motivated minion. Just remember to always remain polite and professional, but be firm about your specific needs.
Cecilia is a minion engineer doing engineering. She’s only ever had engineers as bosses. She’s hoping this blog post isn’t a career-limiting move, because she really enjoys engineering and hopes to level-up one day to be a manager.