Management – Like Love – Means Letting Go

I usually address bright, big picture topics, but this time circumstances have brought it very close to home. I hope you won’t mind.

In the early evening of Sunday, August 30, after many years of declining health, my husband of 33 years went gentle into that good night.

Those who were close knew Barry as an incredibly loving person, but he was still quite able to rage against social inequalities and injustices – whether big (think slavery, 9/11, or Rwanda), or small.

He had no way to address holocausts, but he did have a constructive response to the slights and rudeness and dismissive behaviors he observed against those who could not fight back. And the fact that there were good reasons for not fighting back – potential loss of livelihood, or even life itself – is what truly raised his ire.

These days, a management consultant might praise Barry’s approach as ‘scalable, repeatable, and sustainable.’ He simply showed people he cared. He modeled respect; not just tolerance. Even the most downtrodden would have his full engagement for as long as civil discourse continued, after which he would politely withdraw. And that, it turns out, was the greatest management lesson I ever learned: to withdraw. To be silent. To let go.

How often are management problems – like personal relationship problems – caused by the inability to just let go?

Case in point: I know someone who works in the innovation department of a huge company. The job description is, basically, find exciting and cool stuff, and report on it. So when I found an exciting and cool article on a very respected website, I sent this very hard worker the link.

I got an immediate response…but not the one I was expecting. It went something like, ‘<expletive deleted!!>, they won’t let us access that site. Actually, most everything is blocked. Makes it really hard to do my job.’

At some point – who knows when or why – someone decided that the company needed to control where people go, and what they see, on the web. Now that choice is obsolete and obstructive to the company’s own desire to innovate and grow. And yet, no one is letting it go.

Just saying.

Personal relationships are much the same. Really, if you have to hold on tight to control your partner, how whole can they be? And how good is that for you?

A very wise person said to me, “when we are infants our hands are curled up; when we grow old, they are relaxed open.” When I heard it, I thought, that is equally true of our maturity as managers.

In the end, there was no holding Barry back from his final journey. Even if there was, it’s not the way he would have wanted me – or him – to manage it.

Three Ways to Fail at Managing Teams

I grew up in a home where both mom and dad were active union members, and it gave me a clear message about working life: there is labor, and there is management. Labor’s job is to make stuff happen. Management’s job is to oppress labor.

I was fine with that worldview for a long time. But eventually, I grew up and, somewhere along the line, I became management. I even got to like being management. The funny thing is that my parents, the union loyalists, are the ones I have to thank for that. Here’s why: they didn’t just teach me that oppression was a bad thing. They also made me realize that it can be just as bad for the oppressor as it is for the oppressed.

Oppression is the hallmark of bad management. It’s the butt of Dilbertesque jokes about pointy haired bosses and evil functionaries, and it’s the bane of workers at all levels of organizations. Typically, oppressors are actively engaged in doing what they do, so it’s easy to vilify them for committing crimes against the workplace.

Sins of commission by management are many. Sins of omission are few, but they can be every bit as demoralizing. Here are three that I will address ad seriatum. (That’s Latin for, ‘I’m going to do this one at a time, because hitting you with all three, and no breaks in between, would be seriously uncool.’)

First, there is failure to observe. You might remember something like this happening early in your working life. It happened to Stacy on the very first job.

The team had a serious problem. Stacy was new, and bright, and identified a solution. It was simple, and it would have worked, but the manager couldn’t see it. Boss only saw Stacy, barely 21 years old, too new to know the score, and without a resume to provide credibility. Being laughed at and chided for offering such a naïve opinion was deeply humiliating, and to this day Stacy is reluctant to make suggestions.

Second: failure to nurture. Ari works as an analyst in the innovation department of a huge maker of scientific products. Ari applied three times for the company’s ‘high potential’ program, but the manager never followed through, and Ari was passed over each time. Ari is creative, smart, and well liked. The manager is not. Did the manager feel threatened, or was it just laziness? No matter. Ari has given up.

And third: failure to acknowledge. And herein lies a particularly sad story. Morgan has been in a supervisory position in a critical function of an organization for over two years. If you ask the team members, you’ll get nothing but glowing reports. But the manager gives no recognition, or support, or praise of any kind. Morgan feels unliked, weak, and fearful of job loss. Despite having opportunities to leave, and to move up, Morgan stays. Why? Because Morgan is there to serve the team and does not give up easily. And also because, in leaving, the team would no longer have a shield from the icy chill of the boss’ indifference.

Many failures are just learning experiences, but the failure of management to team well – as exemplified here – causes real damage.

So, if your work experience resonates strongly with that of Stacy, or Ari, or Morgan… or their managers! – then beware. When leaders fail to team, they eventually lead a business to fail.