Project managers can single-handedly make or break a project. They can inspire an entire group of people to do their best or cause them to slack off with equal passion. If you’re reading this post, odds are your job has something to do with the web industry, in which case you’ve either filled the role of or have been managed by a project lead.
In the web industry they come in two flavours; non-technical, the ones who act more as a client liaison, and technical leads, the guys who can also do the job. This means the former tend to be more disconnected from their teams and, unfortunately, this leads to some very uninspired attempts to become the glue that keeps us all together. After a few chats with friends in the web industry I’ve compiled a list of common offenders and what you can do to change the way the game is played. Enjoy!
These day, if given the chance, employees will voice their concerns about their work and professional future. Many of these people aren’t comfortable talking to their managers about their dislikes in regards to the company so, when they do try to open up about it, don’t shut them down. Some managers use deflection techniques, like drawing attention to how hard they’ve got it, while others change the subject or worse, say they have neither the time nor the energy to deal with that particular issue. And once you shut someone down that way, odds are, they won’t open up a second time.
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus
If you’re a manager and a team member comes to you with a problem, no matter how long it takes and no matter how silly you find it, shut up and listen. Companies can build a shared culture but employees have to buy into it and at the end of the day, a business is the people behind it. You flush them down the drain, your business isn’t too far behind.
Manipulating the truth is often seen as an integral part of business. People exaggerate during sales pitches, employees lie to cover up their mistakes and managers blame clients for their shortcomings. No matter how you look at it, trust seems to be in short supply these days and it’s affecting not just people but businesses as well. Being unreliable means whenever you try to motivate your employees, talk about their professional progress, project milestones or the future of the company, everything you say will be met with skepticism. If your team doesn’t trust you, it’s going to be nearly impossible to effectively lead them.
On the other hand, when leaders are transparent and trustworthy, teams are more motivated, they’re more efficient, less stressed, improving the quality of their work and cutting down on project delivery times. Not to mention, that calling out a team on being unreliable or irresponsible is quite ironic when the man leading them isn’t much better. It can be very difficult to work with people you don’t trust but don’t let a bad manager turn you to the dark side. Stick to your principles, always be honest because jobs come and go, careers are forged on strong ethics and by putting your skills to good use every single time you have the opportunity to do so.
Being louder than life
In the wild, animals make loud noises to intimidate potential predators and discourage their competition. People aren’t very different from wild animals in this respect. Whether we get loud with enthusiasm or anger, the reason behind it is always the same – we want to be heard. Managers, however, should either have or acquire better communication techniques. Mainly because yelling doesn’t communicate anything other than frustration and anger, and it is either met with more yelling or dead silence. When you yell, you’re telling people to shut up and listen, which is ironic particularly when you’re asking questions in a volume that could put death metal vocalists to shame.
Whether they’ve got it coming or not, yelling at your employees only makes you look like an emotionally unstable prick. Calm down, think about what you want to communicate and criticize constructively. Likewise, if your manager is yelling at you, try to stay calm, yelling back only serves to irritate him even more. Be firm and tell them you don’t appreciate their attitude and focus on the solution rather than the problem. You have to make it very clear that you do not deserve that sort of behavior and will not stand for it.
The “Easy” gambit
This one is tricky because managers, technical and non-technical alike, can use it constructively. Saying Don’t worry about it, it’s easy. You’ll do great can motivate employees to live up to expectations and can calm the more anxious ones. However, when a non-technical lead gives you a task they’ve never actually performed but somehow know exactly how difficult it is, things tend to get dicey.
You know that rush you get when you’ve been wrecking your brain trying to find a cool name for a campaign or fix a bug that just won’t quit? Then you’ve also enjoyed the disheartening feeling you get when your manager walks in saying “Oh, that’s easy”. Never downplay the effort employees put into their work. At most, if you feel they’ve spent too much time and resources on something, figure out why and help them take a more efficient approach next time. If it’s that easy, a manager should have no problem teaching an employee a better way of doing things.
Management is a lot like ridding a skateboard on a vertical wall. Even if you do it right, it won’t last long but keep at it and one day, you’ll learn to do it right. Often.
Changing the rules
In the world of web design and online advertising, projects tend to be a lot like a game of strategy. We set a goal, we establish roles, we decide how we’re going to get from point A to point B but then, clients realise the possibilities and want more. As long as it’s not too disruptive to the original architecture, it’s not too bad but most of the time when a client comes up with something mid-project it’s likely to be features galore. The project manager’s role is to anticipate the feature-binge before the project enters development and become the voice of reason when opting to implement one or more new features.
Thing is, most project managers, especially non-technical ones, just want to keep the client happy so regardless if it’s doable or not, soon enough, several new features are requested. People worth working with have this crazy habit of wanting to know what they’re doing and why, and because the decision to implement a new feature was based solely on the client’s request, that’s the only answer they’ll get and good luck working on something without an actual purpose.
There’s no shame in saying you have to Work out the details with my team and I’ll get back to you on that. Similarly, don’t compromise and build something just because you were told to, especially if you know it’s detrimental on the long run. Explaining why it’s a bad idea will help but giving the manager options will make you that much more convincing.
Some managers are a lot like politicians and, like politicians, have become the undefeated heavy-weight champs of evasive answers. These people are capable of talking minutes on end without a single pause and without conveying a single piece of useful information. Trust is extremely important in business so being reliable, ethical and honest are essential for managers if they are to successfully lead a team.
Don’t adapt your answers to what you think your employees want to hear, it will make you look manipulative and untrustworthy. Be honest. Considerate but honest, people will respect you more for it. If you’re dealing with a manager you have to pry straight answers from, learn to ask the right questions. Be succinct and ask for specifics, again and again and again, all the while explaining what the consequences of not getting the information on time are.
Serving collective pronouns
A project manager saying We have to find a way to implement this technical solution shouldn’t really be a problem, right? And it isn’t, as long as we’re talking about a technical project leader who, at least in theory, has the skills to actually help in finding a solution for said problem. However, a non-technical project leaders can’t really contribute, so using collective pronouns in this way only creates the illusion of a team effort and can give people the impression the manager is trying to take credit for something he’s not really pitching in on.
So, unless you’re actively contributing, don’t say we, when you really mean someone else. Instead, be fair and acknowledge the effort each team member has to contribute towards finding a solution. This will not only make them more responsible for the outcome of each task but you’ll also gain their respect. And guys, when your manager aims to impress by serving you collective pronouns, remember the great Rodney McKay.
The Bottom Line
A good manager understands that how he listens, what he says and how he behaves has a great impact on his team and its performance. Great managers know they have to lead by example. If you want a team with strong work ethics, that’s who you have to be. If you want a team eager to learn new things, you have to create an environment suitable for their professional growth. And most importantly, if you want to lead a team you love working with, remember, they have to love you right back.