Jacob Kaplan-Moss

When you’re a manager, your behavior is under a microscope

I once had a boss who’d start every DM conversation with me like this:

slack message: The Boss says “do you have a minute?

Every single time he did this, my heart would skip a beat. “Uh oh”, I’d think, “what’s wrong? Am I getting fired?” Even though it rarely was anything bad — 99% of the time it was just typical day-to-day work stuff — it still brought up the same sort of panic as I’d get in high school when I’d hear “Jacob Kaplan-Moss, please report to the Principal’s office” over the P.A.

My boss, of course, knew none of this. He certainly didn’t mean to cause fear; I doubt he thought consciously about how he opened conversations on Slack. He probably never considered this behavior one way or another.

Something that surprises new managers is how closely their behavior is scrutinized by their directs. Suddenly, behaviors that they’ve never considered are being taken as signs of something they never intended. Managers need to pay much closer attention to their behavior, and carefully consider what sorts of messages they’re sending.

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Kay, told me this story: a member of Kay’s team, let’s call him Roger, opened his weekly 1:1 by asking, “why aren’t you interested in my work?” Kay was thrown: she was interested, and had no idea why Roger thought otherwise. Here’s what happened: Kay’s team has a weekly staff meeting, first thing in the morning. Kay’s a process nerd like me, so this staff meeting has a fairly proscribed and consistent schedule. As it turns out, Kay’s coffee usually runs out right around when it’s Roger’s turn to give an update on his work. So many weeks, Kay was ducking out to refill her coffee from the carafe in the hallway right when Roger was getting up to speak.

In Kay’s mind, she was out of coffee needed a refill. Roger had nothing to do with her behavior. But in Roger’s mind, Kay was using his turn as a chance to duck out because she didn’t care about his work.

There’s a lot more to communication than just verbal communication. Roger’s interpretation is entirely valid! There could even be a bit of truth to his interpretation: certainly, if Kay was riveted by Roger’s updates, she would have ignored the empty cup. Kay can say that she cares about Roger’s work, but if her actions or body language communicate otherwise, it’s not unreasonable for Roger to pay more attention to her actions than her language.

Stepping out of the room while someone else talks is an action that invites interpretation. If Kay wasn’t a manager, it might be totally fine: Roger probably wouldn’t be paying as close attention to a peer, and even if he was it’s less of a big deal if Kay’s not his manager. It’s probably worthwhile for everyone to consider what sorts of messages their non-verbal behavior sends, but it’s particularly important for managers. Your directs are watching you a lot closer than you might think.

This is particularly important for behaviors that communicate something about the company culture. Culture is mostly communicated implicitly, often through behavior modeling. If your manager never takes a vacation, you’ll feel more uncomfortable asking for time off and will take less. If your manager leaves promptly at 4:45 to pick his kids up from school, you’ll feel more comfortable doing the same. If your manager sends email late at night, or on weekends, it sends the message that working nights and weekends is expected.

If you’re a new manager, this probably seems a bit unfair. Having people scrutinize your behavior for messages you maybe didn’t mean to send isn’t super fun. Considering the subtext of every interaction is annoying. It’d be so much easier if we could just dash off that email on Sunday because we’re thinking of work for a minute, and not have to think about the message it might send.

But it comes with the territory. If you want to be a good manager, you need to accept that your behavior is under a microscope. You need to watch your behavior carefully and pay attention to what that behavior communicates.