The Manager Practitioner Series Part 1: Please Don't Say It's Another Meme

Updated: Sep 20

Rob Scalise

Pros are practitioners of their craft – they study and practice the right things. In this series, we will dive into what managing like a practitioner looks like and focus on aspects of the role you don’t typically see in workshops, textbooks, and social media. There is a lot of good information out there, and some bad stuff too, it takes a skilled practitioner to know when, where, and how to apply it. This series' purpose is to translate skills from behavior science to provide some tools for your belt to better inform your experiences as a manager, leader, or coach.

Almost everything you do as a manager effects the behavior of someone. It’s kind of an important part of the job. Whether you are a powerful executive or shift manager – it’s not just a position you hold, it’s a skillset you employ. Often taking the form of a title earned, a raise, and access to cooler stuff – a manager can take on different meanings and fill different roles across an organization. It obviously means more responsibility and longer hours. What often gets missed is the subtle shift in the job description – not just being a pro at doing tasks but understanding why and how others are doing their tasks, understanding their behavior and your own. Even if you’re managing budgets, keeping costs down, or increasing market share, it all happens by understanding and influencing the relationships between people’s behavior and the company’s money. In this way, management as a practice is parallel to behavior science in that they both aim to describe, influence, and predict people’s behavior. This is true for all management positions – whether you deal with customers, suppliers, or internal operations. It may be one of the most nuanced and innovative positions in business, it’s also one of the most studied and opinionated positions in the workplace.

We have serial passive-income-preneurs with targeted workshops. Bro-science wizzes with newly revealed, never seen before secrets. MBAs with mounds of management theories and case studies. Coaches and speakers with 3-easy-step-systems to a successful everything. Tried-and-true lifers that, “know how things are done.” Social media networking pros with quotes and memes (#leadership). And consultant know-it-alls writing blog posts about it. With all of this, check out the graphic and ask yourself: what do you hear the most of while at work?

There’s still lots of work to do. There are so many “experts” in behavior because we’re constantly surrounded by people doing things. That’s what humans do – for better or worse, we’re very good at drawing conclusions based off what we’ve seen, smelled, heard, and touched. It’s a truly amazing skill. However, when we rely on these conclusions, we take shortcuts, and we can miss important details. This becomes a problem when things, like behavior, become nuanced. We start to rely on potentially faulty information that doesn’t match the exact needs of the situation in front of us.

Let’s look at an example. Can you name the 3 laws of physics or calculate the mass/velocity ratio of a moving object? Kudos to you if you can. Even without this formal knowledge, you can still manage the laws of physics like a pro when you turn the steering wheel of huge chunk of a metal around a corner without killing yourself – a monumental, but relatively routine task. You drive around a lot of corners and have become good at it, you can explain to me what steps you take go around corners and can probably show others how to go around corners too. But if I asked you to round the corner faster, would you just increase your speed and hit the gas pedal? To round the corner more efficiently – you need to also approach the turn from a wider angle, recognize the apex of the turn, be in the right gear, apply the correct brake pressure, etc. It’s not a physics degree but understanding this basic approach to cornering gives you the tools to better inform your experience. Not just to manage this turn more efficiently, also other turns you haven’t yet experienced. It gives you specific skills to practice and concepts to base goals around so you can track improvements, you become more proficient at turning through our approach to the task.

Management is a dynamic position. You can study models, read case studies, have years on the job, and be a leadership meme aficionado – in the next two weeks, you’re going into run into a situation that doesn’t look like anything else. There are policies, processes, models, data, systems, the checks, and the balances to use as a guide but it takes a good manager to know when and how to apply them. Or else you’re just out there going for the gas pedal. The most useful application of behavior science is to help provide a practical framework for how to approach your role as manager, leader, and coach so that you may use aspects from your experience or education more effectively.

Good practitioners are aware of the pitfalls and traps that come along with their profession. If you can better understand the conditions that make you less like a pro, you can better inform your experiences and use it to improve your skillset. Let’s go over two of the biggest management traps and situations that can put pressure on us and others to start taking short cuts and drawing bad conclusions. This often takes the form of name calling, lazy explanations, emotional outbursts, power trips, self-preservation, avoidance, biases, not enforcing policies, fudging data, reactive management, unequal treatment, and so on.

We're Humans

The most overlooked factors affecting our job performance don’t even happen at work. We often talk about burnout as working too many hours, but there is more to the story than just number of hours worked. When you work more, you are doing less of other things. No matter how good you’ve gotten at compartmentalizing or hiding, it’s impossible to separate your work and personal life. You can say, “not me,” it doesn’t matter. We need the other things, we’re humans. We’re all unique, difficult, and notoriously bad workers. We have weird habits, desires, and hobbies. We have emotions and secret motivations. And kids, and appointments, and pets, we get sick, we need to sleep, and there is just…so much good YouTube content. We may get better at hiding it, become pro’s even, but we can’t just turn things off. Most managers are easily spending over 40 hours a week at work - fatigue, family life, health issues, or even just because it’s Monday can change the way we approach the job, but this works both ways, our work schedules change the way approach our personal life as well. On any day, you may be tasked with finding a babysitter for your quarantined kids, or planning a trip, or fighting your morning routine of doom scrolling, or having trouble sleeping, or picking up DJ’ing classes, or finding a ride to get to work on time. Just to get to work and manage people going through the same things. Oh, and don’t forget - put on a smile on your face, go after those goals, and don’t you let anything hold you back! #Leadership

The daily pressures and demands of our time are good enough reason to see our need to take shortcuts and draw conclusions. This can look like something small like eating unhealthy fast food to save time or something big like fudging numbers to get a raise.

There are many time-management and self-management tools out there, there is a vast world of checklists, and reminders, and productivity managers. You can also utilize professional allies and therapists. Of course, these tools will help improve your approach to work and life, I always recommend taking the time to find some that work for you. Even something as simple as a checklist can help you from taking shortcuts in your day. The thing is none of them will make it go away. Things will always keep happening, you will have to adjust. The right approach is to be aware of it, plan for it, and understand how these variables effect your work life and those around you. Allow it to inform your experiences about managing your life, your work, and the people around you. When these pressures start to pile up, you will be more wary, and you can practice skills to help you become more proficient in avoiding the pitfalls.

We're often hesitant to admit when demands get overwhelming because “powering on” is incentivized. Humans are also generally unreliable when it comes to evaluating and describing their own health and negative effects from their lifestyle. This is why it helps to proactively use job aides to help manage tasks to keep a balance and keep open communication with someone you trust – build it into your schedule if you must. Another skill to practice is to make an effort to ask more meaningful questions of your employees, your peers, and your bosses. This two-way communication can help you gain valuable information, making you a better problem solver and more agile manager. Building feedback loops into your decision making and utilizing the people your decisions most effect helps build trust and provides a social barometer should pressures mount and you’re tempted to take, or have inadvertently taken, some destructive shortcuts.

The Power Dynamic

Whatever level of manager or leader you are – you have more power than those on your team. You have the power to make decisions that affect the well-being, the money, the time, the health, and the safety of others that don’t hold that same power over you. Think about it, if this was any other relationship, it would be a toxic one.

No matter how “cool” or “relatable” you are, this dynamic does not go away. When you use it for good, you inspire trust. When you use it in a bad way, you get fear and resentment. You don’t need a behavior expert to tell you this, I know. But why does it continue to occur so much? If you read the memes, it should be easy to be an eternally benevolent and all-knowing leader whenever we’re called upon (#leadership). The reality is that both trust and fear are great motivators, they both can get the job done. There's only one sustainable and healthy option – but it's also more difficult to do. Positive reinforcement (adding good things) and negative reinforcement (removing bad things) are much more robust at effecting behavior than negative punishment (removing good things) and positive punishment (adding bad things), but they often take extra time to plan and execute effectively. When we don’t have time or the skills to use constructive tools to manage people’s actions, we resort to easier and more destructive tools. If this happens enough without recourse, it becomes a habit, or a management style you rely on.

We’re humans. The closer the pressure comes to affecting our daily lives – the quicker we are to overlook the details and revert to conclusions, short cuts, and the gas pedal. We can have a forever debate on the origins of the need for control and the inequitable accountability that comes with positions of power. The bottom line is if you are vigilant to the conditions of your power and ways it may affect your behavior, you are improving your approach and informing experiences from the right perspective. You are managing like a practitioner.

A great way to help you practice equalizing the power dynamic and gain more trust as a manager is to be open to feedback, not just any feedback, but from the people you are tasked to manage. Give them a seat at the table and make less one way communication channels like memos and company statements. You make decisions about them and their work – it only makes sense to let them have a say, even if you can’t do it. The Fair-Process Model shows some great practical examples of how this practice impacts employee’s acceptance of decisions made in the workplace.

The Bad Seeds

One of the most insidious bad seeds in management has been the idolization of ultra-macho management styles. We grew up watching people like Vince Lombardi, Tony La Rusa, and Bob Knight kick and scream their way to being hailed the top coaches of all time. I’m personally fond of Bill Cowher, who is infamous for sticking his chin out and grimacing at players who made a mistake. the chin! He's in the hall of fame but would probably be a horrible manager (he may do well in the restaurant industry). The media has historically profiled eccentric leaders with a heavy-handed disciplinary style, filling the airwaves with sound bites and unsustainable management practices (see Lee Iacocca). They were models for whole generations of people who have become leaders and managers. Do you see where I’m going with this? When we get placed in positions where the answer isn’t obvious or something doesn’t quite work out, we tend to take short cuts and rely on faulty conclusions, we hit the gas pedal. Where do you think we turn? To the practices we’ve been exposed to, much like the kid who reverts to the practices of their parents (good or bad) to inform their novel adult experiences.

Another pervasive aspect in management is the reliance on traditional psychological theory. I don’t think you can find another field who based its major claims on why we do things to men who fudged data and just made stuff up. Not all psychology is bad, and most is good! Years of focus on horoscope-type personality tests, and poorly spent money, have laid the groundwork for some of the most unfortunate approaches to explaining behavior in the workplace, attaching the causes of behavior to some trait instead of looking other more practical causes for bad performance, also successes. One of the defining characteristics behavior science is that we look for causal relationships in places that can be defined, measured, and studied. These relationships exist between people’s actions and their surroundings. Most problems in the workplace originate from the conditions set up around people and the people with the most ability to effect conditions in the workplace are managers and leaders. Going back to our first diagram, which comments do you think most accurately reflect this dynamic? The left side is filled with typical phrases that push that responsibility onto other sources. The approach on the right reflects the skills of a pro, one that recognizes how work conditions effect behavior, also their power to effect change. Making sure you cross off the boxes you have the most control over before diving into conclusions, hitting the gas pedal, and hitting a pitfall will leave in you better positions to make decisions that your current situations require.

In part 2 of this series, we will go over some strategies to help improve your ability to recognize and explain causes of people’s behavior and why this approach is so important to combat some of the pitfalls outlined here to better inform your practices as a manager practitioner.

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