What’s the Trick to Managing Employees? It’s Simple — Just Let Them Manage You

John Hollon John Hollon, Managing People

A few years ago, I was working as Editor of a fairly well-known talent management magazine and found myself engaged in one of my frequent discussions with the publisher over something.

I don’t remember what the subject was, but at some point I said something that seemed to startle my publisher. His face contorted, turned red, and he barked something at me I had never, ever heard a boss say to me before — “Stop trying to manage me!”

This surprised me. I always thought that managing your boss was a good thing, but in the eyes of this guy — a very controlling person who really did need to be managed most of the time — it somehow was not.

Why managing up makes a lot of sense

So, imagine my surprise when reading a New York Times interview with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the founder and chairman of Joyus, a video shopping site. What jumped out of the interview was her management philosophy, because she makes a great case that managing up — yes, managing your boss — is not only a good thing, but pretty much expected in today’s workplace.

Here’s what she said when asked, “Do you have any early leadership lessons?”

I have this philosophy now, which I tell my team all the time — “Either you manage me or I manage you. Which would you prefer?”

I like to give people a lot of rope. I like to see what they can do, but I also have an amazing capacity for detail. I know what they said they were going to do, and if they’re not doing it, what’s happening? Then I’m starting to pull the rope back.

And if I’m starting to manage your time, you’re not at your best and I’m not at my best. Because when I’m managing your time with the opinions I have, I’m going to start telling you what to do, right? I’d rather bring my vision collaboratively with somebody else’s vision. But if you show up with no vision, you’re going to walk out with my vision, which I don’t think is a very empowering place to be.”

The way employer-employee relations ought to be

This is a great way to view the relationship with a boss or a manager, because it emphasizes what you want to impart on your staff — that you’re ALL at your best when you bring your vision and approach to your boss — and then work with them on what you all should be doing.

Yes, my short-sighted former boss didn’t understand that managing up is REALLY a good thing, and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy makes a great point when she frames it as “do you want to manage me, or me to manage you?” It’s clear that her employees feel empowered to work with her and help her see where things should be going.

Out of that kind of collegial collaboration, good things almost always happen.

This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to smart leadership. What Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is advocating for is a highly collaborative management style, and it makes for a very fulfilling boss-employee relationship that the entire operation benefits from.

And for all the Millennials on your team, it’s how they generally prefer to work. Yes, you’ll play to that too — if you can embrace this savvy leadership philosophy.

Wanted: capable people with a little humility, too

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy also has some interesting insights on hiring, and here’s what she told The New York Times when she was asked “How do you hire?

I love really smart people, but I love really smart people who are focused on the good of the company before themselves. That gets my respect like nothing else. It’s a unique combination to find somebody who is so capable and smart, but has some level of humility about their place in the entire ecosystem. I’ve dealt with a lot of people who are really smart, but it’s all about them. And that’s a very frustrating place for me.

I also always ask people what drains their energy, and what gives them energy. That tells me a lot about what people like to do and what they’re good at.”

In my experience, humility isn’t a quality that jumps out in the hiring process, because recruiters and hiring managers seem to always be looking for people with lots of confidence, energy, and enthusiasm, and these aren’t qualities that humble people usually latch on to.

But, the good news is that people with humility can spread that quality through your entire workforce. When they do, everyone on your staff will be better for it.

The big surprise here is that there is a business leader out there talking about humility, as a positive employee trait we should be hiring for, featured in the pages of The New York Times.

That’s a positive trend in today’s incredibly negative media landscape, and should be something that makes readers AND business leaders everywhere sit up and pay attention.

John Hollon
John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, and smart workforce practices. He currently is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media. He also was founding Editor of the popular talent management website TLNT.com, and before that, Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. John also held editing positions at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register, and was top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers —Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and The Honolulu Advertiser. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing as editorial director at Fancy Publications, VP of Editorial at Pets.com, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal. In addition, John is an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and a board member at the Kronos Workforce Institute. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business & Management, and lives in Southern California.