Habits of mind all support managers should cultivate

Aspiring support managers ask lots of good questions, and one that I get a lot is: “What skills should I be building now to get ready for my first people management role?”

My answer usually surprises them, because I don’t recommend focusing on skills at all. Skills can wait. Skills can be taught.

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Whoa, hold up! Skills can wait.

Instead, I recommend they work on cultivating two key habits of mind.

The two habits of mind all support managers should have

In my experience, there’s just one thing that separates good managers from mediocre ones: The basic beliefs they have about the people who are working for them. These beliefs inform how support managers spend their time and energy, how they advocate for their teams in the broader company, and how they act (and react) in the face of challenges. They are fundamental to everything support managers do, and can make or break their success and satisfaction in their roles.

Beliefs become habits of mind when they’re so deeply ingrained that they become reflexive, automatic ways of framing your thinking across a variety of different situations. To maximize effectiveness in their roles, these are the two habits of mind that all support managers should have:

  • People are basically good, and want to do good work.
  • The first statement remains true even when it occasionally makes you look foolish.

Why?

Managing people is hard. People make mistakes, they get on each others’ nerves, and they have emotions, biases and baggage that sometimes make it hard to get work done. When you’re a support manager, you’re going to have to, well, manage all of this. And it’s hard.

If you don’t believe – in a really fundamental, deep-in-your-bones kind of way – that everyone is doing their best, and trying their best to do good work, you will not excel as a manager. If you’re not steadfast in that belief – even when one of your direct reports behaves in a way that should make you question it  – you may not succeed in your role.

The reason for this is simple: You won’t be able to cope with the frustration and disappointment that managing people sometimes brings. As an act of self-preservation, you’ll harden, and turn away from the human part of your role. And that’s when things will get rocky.

You’ll start to focus on squeezing the most work you can out of your team, and less on empowering them, and helping them grow and develop. Before long, you’ll be penalizing your team members for every mistake they make, instead of treating errors as learning opportunities. You’ll nitpick when someone is even a little late to a meeting, every time a deadline slips (even soft ones). Your team will stop confiding in you, and they’ll start complaining about you to each other.

You’ll become the manager that no one wants to work for.

The journey begins

If you don’t already believe that people are good, and are trying to do good work, or you’re worried that this belief might be easily shaken, all is not lost. You can (and should) work on cultivating these habits of mind.

But how? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be genuinely interested in the people in your life, even the ones you don’t particularly like. Seek to know them better, to understand them. Listen particularly closely when they start getting excited about something – it’s hard not to see people as good when they’re totally jazzed.
  • Spin, even if it feels funny at first. Coworker bugging you about something? Think of it as an opportunity to work on becoming more patient. Argument with your spouse? Now you better understand what makes them tick. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but spinning your people problems will start to change the way you think about them (the people and the problems).
  • Stop venting, especially about other people. Ruminating about how annoying your coworkers are or how judgmental your mom is and having these attitudes reinforced by others doesn’t let the feelings off your chest – it usually increases the pressure.
  • Related: Stop making unkind observations about other people out loud. This might seem harmless, but the things we say influence our thoughts (it’s not just the other way around). The fewer uncharitable things we say, the fewer uncharitable things we’ll think.
  • Take a break from social media. 

Changing the way you think is a slow process, but if you commit to it, you’ll start to see your habits of mind moving in a direction that will prepare you to manage people well.

Already there, and want to move on to building your people management skills? Let’s talk about it!

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