You have found yourself managing the mildly competent. You are busy. Doing new things is hard. But it’s ok, this will be mostly a list of things to not do. The only new thing you will need to do here is to be mildly more aware of yourself and the surroundings – if you can’t or won’t, that’s a fast road to ruin. Ask me how I know.
How do you know you are managing the mildly competent? Their behavior is generally more like a cruise missile than a rock. They seek out objectives. They drive to clarify objectives into something that can be accomplished. They detect roadblocks in front of the objectives and approach you with ready-made schemes or discussion points about how the roadblocks may be addressed. The mildly competent are also generally somewhat aware of their field, they have experience, and they are at least to some degree learning on their own. Or they are at least demonstrably learning from their own experience. Any fallout from the activity of the mildly competent is generally predictable and has probably been communicated by them.
I am qualified to write this list because I was a manager for a minute there and I am an at least mildly competent individual contributor that has seen several organizations. This guide is especially for you if as far as you are concerned the organization’s mission statement could be replaced with “continue to exist in our industry” and the impact on you would be next to nil.
The central idea here: all we have is time. The mildly competent are aware (sometimes painfully so) of staggering inequality between the time required to do everything that should be done and the time available. Do not make this worse.
- If a question does not need to be asked, do not ask it.
- If a person can be left out of a thread or even better a communication channel, leave them out.
a. If you do decide to add someone, especially to a communication channel, have a clear explanation for how their being there has a material benefit to something. If you cannot formulate one, do not add them.
- Do not include people in meetings for the sake of inclusion or on the off chance they hear something.
- Do not engage in work that produces no value whatsoever. Do not say that something is a waste of time and proceed to do it anyway.
a. A brave person will often point out such work. You as a manager need to recognize that every such pointing out on the part of a brave person incurs a cost, especially if they are by some method forced to do the useless anyway.
- If a recurring meeting is not serving any clear purpose, delete it.
- Do not send a message such as “hey” or “hello.” Transmit what you intended to transmit. The recipient will appreciate being able to respond to you with more than a “hello” back.
- Do not send meeting invitations without at least something potentially resembling an agenda.
- Do not engage in productivity theater. Shuffling around priorities when they have no impact on the order in which work gets done whatsoever is wasting time.
- Do not bother setting standards if you are going to ignore them.
- Do not expect that someone has the same communication expectations as you do.
a. I have been fortunate to have management that has understood that my communication expectations are that if you need me outside of regular hours, you call or text, I will not see anything else. I have had to frequently start this conversation. If you have not had this conversation, you have no right to expectations about this.
- Do not expect that someone has the same idea as far as the priority or urgency of something unless you have made yourself clear. If a person is switching organizations or industries, you may need to make yourself clear several times.
- Do not insert yourself into the work of the mildly competent without a clear explanation. The mildly competent generally cares about doing a good job, your inserting of yourself without a clear explanation will be seen as evidence to the contrary. This will go especially poorly if you have provided exactly no feedback to the mildly competent that is anything other than “you are doing a good job, everything is fine.”
- Do not complain to the people you manage, especially not about the people that manage you.
- Do not say things that you are unsure of without qualification. Do not say things that are nonsensical. Do not say things that are readily verifiable as false.
- Do not attempt to do the work of the mildly competent for them; especially do not do this without explicitly communicating to them that you are going to do it.
- Do not attempt to make the mildly competent understand that this is how you have always done it and so they should too; or that this is how things are done at this organization, or worse still that you have been here longer and have had it way worse than the mildly competent so they should be thankful.
a. The mildly competent understands having to decide or move forward in a less than optimal situation. What the mildly competent may struggle with is your wishy-washiness or hesitation about doing so.
- Do not nitpick the mildly competent. If you see a spelling error or some other such mild thing, fix it, and inform the mildly competent that you have done so. Do not make the mildly competent fix it themselves, especially if you are already looking at it and it will take you less time to fix it than it would take for the mildly competent to context switch to do it. You should not be trying to train the mildly competent in the same way that you would a child or a dog (it is unclear if punishment-based methods are a great idea generally).
- Do not tolerate whatever to you seems unworkable. Bring it up. A fundamental characteristic of the mildly competent is that they want the thing to work well, whatever it is.
- Do not talk repeatedly about how busy you are. If you have something to delegate, do that.
Now that you have gotten back some time, and only if you authentically care about being a better manager, go read “The Effective Executive” by Peter F. Drucker. And then actually do what he tells you to do.