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Are You A Self-Determined Manager? Ten Changes You Might Need To Make Right Now


by David Deacon, author of “The Self Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers

Am I a great manager?

This is an incredibly tough question to answer. A manager’s job is to get things done by marshalling the efforts of others — and most of us have blind spots that keep us from seeing how we impact those others. But in all honesty, the answer is probably no. Great managers are self-determined managers, and self-determined managers are extremely rare.

Being a great manager — the kind who creates a high-performing company — is exceptionally difficult. You can never rest. You can never let things slide. You can never waste an opportunity. You are responsible for creating an environment in which people can achieve and grow in ways they did not even imagine — and that’s a job that’s never finished.

Sounds exhausting, yes? But if you don’t do the hard work of becoming a self-determined manager, a lot of major things can go off the rails. Bad managers create environments where there’s little openness or honesty… or where everyone curries favor rather than focusing on performance… or where people deflect blame onto others (et cetera).

Employees do these things to try to cope with the environment you, the manager, have created. But the flip side is that when you become a better manager — a self-determined one — you’ll see dramatic changes in their behavior and performance.

Being a self-determined manager is not so much about mastering a vast array of technical skills. It’s less about task and more about attitude. It’s about creating environments of overachievement where people thrive and great work gets done.

The ideas in his manifesto are for managers at every level, from the CEO to the first-time leader. Regardless of your level or the scale of your impact, you will get better outcomes when you strive to be a self-determined manager. If you want to be among their number, here are ten changes you may need to make right now:

1. Set aside time to reflect on your own agenda.

This is a biggie. It’s really easy to lose sight of how (and if) your current situation fits with your overall aims. If you don’t have a clear sense of what your purpose is, why you’re doing what you do, and how it fits with your life, you cannot hope to make consistently good decisions for yourself and others. You’ll just be condemned to react to your circumstances.

2. Choose, deliberately and actively, the type of environment you want to create.

As manager, it’s your job to decide the kind of environment that the team will experience — for better or worse. Think of the best teams you’ve worked on. What was the prevailing atmosphere? How did the team members work together, how were problems solved, issues resolved? At the heart of all that will have been a manager who set the tone and created the atmosphere.

This environment isn’t something you can just will into being. It’s a process. But every process begins with a decision, and making that decision now is the step that all other improvements this year will flow from.

3. Be more restless. Each week ask yourself and your team: What can we do better? 

The best managers have impatience (if something is worth doing, why wait?), an instinct for continuous improvement (good enough is never good enough), and a lingering sense of constructive dissatisfaction (how can we do this better next time?). They set themselves and others very high standards of performance and conduct.

This demanding impatience for ever-greater impact and ever-higher standards can make self-determined managers very difficult to work for. Just be sure to always balance the high expectations with encouragement and a positive approach.

4. Start treating employees like adults. 

Work is not school. Adults do their best work when they are treated as adults. Therefore, great managers don’t bully, shout, patronize, belittle, play favorites, name-call, behave aggressively, or condescend. To generate trust and respect, you must create an environment where adults can do great things.

Life is a little short for bad relationships and miserable interactions. Make sure you are helping create harmonious environments around you.

5. Curb any tendencies toward self-serving behavior.

Avoid the urge to take the glory for victories or shirk responsibility for failure. When you do this, you create an environment where people quickly learn not to volunteer, to not trust the intentions of their leader, and to be busy on work or projects away from the team where there will be some recognition or reward for their efforts. If you feel the need to take credit or protect yourself at the expense of your team, remind yourself that it’s all about them, not about you. Your ego, fears, and ambitions are not relevant to your team, so keep them to yourself.

6. Start letting people know when they do great work. (This creates confidence.)

The best managers make it clear to their people that they have confidence in their abilities and in their potential to make a big contribution to the team’s success. They do two things. First, they recognize when someone does something well and they acknowledge this as a good thing. Second, they express confidence in the person (so long as they truly believe it).

The message is, “I saw you do something really good today, and I know you will continue to do great things going forward.” This is an incredibly powerful combination.

7. Learn something new. Take a class, master a new skill, even take up a new hobby outside work.

The best managers are interested, curious, open, and alert. They are forever seeking knowledge. This extends far beyond their professional work and reflects their interests, passions, pastimes, and preoccupations. First, thinking “widely” opens possibilities by helping you foster connections, recognize new opportunities, and find better ways to do things. Secondly, broad knowledge and curiosity make you adaptable; a key part of career success is about applying what you have learned in new situations.

To be the best manager you can be, it’s important to never stop learning. Keep cultivating interests outside of your work skills. Maybe you want to take up woodworking, learn a new language, or get a weekend gig working as a DJ. Stretch your horizons and see how your expanded mind benefits your career.

8. Master the art of friendly, informal, light interaction.

While you don’t need to make everyone your friends, it’s important to eschew formality and standoffishness at work. Be gentle and kind with others as well as yourself. Work on creating positive interactions, where people come away feeling good, feeling they have some standing, that they can be themselves to a large extent, and that they are meeting with a good member of the human race.

9. Learn to like the people you work with (yes, even the unlikeable ones).

It’s crucial that you enjoy and appreciate the people you work with. If you deal with someone who is unlikeable, find something to appreciate in their person. Here’s why: First, it changes the nature of all interactions and maximizes the chance that you’ll be successful. You get a less cooperative, less inventive, and less engaged relationship with someone you do not like. Secondly, it furthers the chance that your team members will overlook your unlikeable qualities and focus on your best traits as well. Finally, everyone responds well to being treated well.

10. Figure out why the work of the team matters and articulate this to them.

Without this sense of purpose, it’s hard for people to make greater effort, direct their energies, and self-correct. Further, they will struggle to relate their actions to their employer’s performance, substituting instead other purposes, such as pleasing their boss or doing only work that interests them.

Striving to be a self-determined manager is incredibly hard work, but the payoffs are immense. Not only do you get to witness personal breakthroughs and join in team celebrations, you get to watch company performance escalate over time.

The leverage of having direct reports multiplies your impact in your company, creates outcomes — good or bad — that magnify your work, and makes you responsible for success, which is much greater than most people realize or notice. This is a big responsibility, indeed — for others, for yourself, and for the business.

Managing others is not for the faint-hearted. Doing it well is a conscious and tough choice you need to make every day. But I can’t think of a better way to spend your time.


David Deacon is the author of “The Self Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers“. He has been a human resources professional for over thirty years and passionate about how managers manage for almost as long. He has worked for a variety of the world’s leading companies, including Credit Suisse and MasterCard, and has lived and worked in the US, the UK, and Asia.