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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Confrontation and Cupcakes: Lessons From a First-Time Manager

Social ecologist Peter Drucker described a manager as a “dynamic, life-giving element.”

But at the time I took my first management job, my only “life-giving” experience to date had come from giving life to characters on pages. A writer, I had up until that point only had the task of motivating myself (which, granted, was an incredible task on some days), never other people.

But, in need of a steady income, I accepted a position as a manager of a delicious little cupcake shop in Davis, California. Going in with an “I have a college degree, this job is cake” mindset, I quickly found that I had a lot to learn—much of which no classroom had ever offered. These lessons are a few of the important ones I’ve already gleaned from my first month as a manager.

1. Be the Standard

As a manager, you definitely need to voice your expectations with your team members. But, you should also know that they will be looking to you as an example of what those expectations look like. If I tell my employees that I will have clean aprons for them on Monday but I don’t bring them to work until Friday, I’m communicating that my words don’t hold integrity. If I insist that “on time” is 10 minutes early—then I better be there at 20 ’til. A manager’s actions communicate far more than her words do.

2. Listen

I’ve had managers in the past that understood the concept of communication to mean one-sided conversations focused on delineating expectations and pointing out failures. And yes, expressing and reiterating standards is necessary—but good communication entails much, much more.

Be willing to hear what your employees have to say, consider their complaints, and even ask questions. Listening to your employees will not only make them happier, it will help you do your job better. Some of my employees have had brilliant ideas that’ve saved us time and money. And all of them have benefited from simply feeling valued and being heard.

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Confrontation

Confrontation isn’t a way of punishing an employee for falling short of your expectations; rather, it’s a tool for developing in her the employee you would like to have. When someone is doing something wrong, don’t suffer in silence. Give your employees opportunities to correct their behavior, and praise them when they succeed.

Not long after I began managing, I received multiple complaints about one of my employee’s interactions with customers. She was by far the most efficient worker on my team, but apparently, she was also the least friendly. After a brief chat about her behavior, I noticed a dramatic improvement in her thoughtfulness toward customers (and was sure to tell her so). All she needed was to realize that her fast-paced manner could be misunderstood by others as rudeness.

4. Criticize Well

Identifying and correcting people’s errors is an important part of helping them improve, but if you want to improve behavior, then you need to build your employees up, too. Personally, nothing makes me want to get better in one area more than knowing that I’m great in several others. If you make your employees feel like failures all the time, they won’t feel empowered or excited to improve.

When discussing an area that needs change, a good strategy is to cover what employees are doing well before and after identifying their weakness. For example, one employee of mine struggled with incredible shyness around customers, which inhibited her ability to sell our products. Instead of simply stating, “you need to be more confident,” I made sure to first explain to her aspects of her personality that were worth sharing with others: her thoughtfulness, her great sense of humor, and her easygoing attitude.

5. Don’t Take it Personally

I’ll never forget a time in the 10th grade when my class made the French teacher cry by our unwillingness to pay attention. She was in tears that day because she felt like she had failed—but I couldn’t understand why she cared so much about the ability of a bunch of teenagers to learn and speak a language.

The reality of the situation, though, is that it’s easy to start correlating your employees’ (or students’ or teammates’) behavior, successes, and failures with your value as a manager. If you receive complaints about an employee or someone shows up to work hungover—try not to get upset. Consider the fact that you may have an emotional reaction because you’re invested in the company or the project—and hold back. Recognize that, in the long run, working with an employee to correct her behavior is more effective than expressing emotion.

Being a manager continues to be a learning experience, but by being in tune with the lessons that come with the trade, it’s nothing short of enriching. And, I have confidence that these very lessons will be with me my entire life.

Photo courtesy of AngryJulieMonday.