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How to Become a Manager: Unlock Your Team’s Potential

By May 19, 2023December 21st, 2023No Comments
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When you’re first presented with the mantle of being a manager, you’re going to feel responsibility not just for yourself, but for other people too.

For some, this feels exciting and energizing, but it can also feel very overwhelming. It’s like taking command of a ship and realizing that, while you can safely complete your voyage, you can also sink it with bad decisions… and there’s more to the role than you might have realized.

You’ll have to give tough feedback. You’ll have to fire people. You’ll have to bring out their best. You’ll have to make the relationship psychologically safe. You’ll have to hold them accountable when they’re not living up to their potential. You’ll have to celebrate them when they are.

The sudden heaviness that comes with this responsibility can trigger a fight-or-flight response.

You can either step into your responsibility and take everything on with open arms, or fall prey to your worst impulses – panicking, giving orders, ignoring problems, and micromanaging.

Remember, people join organizations but leave managers. We all know which manager we’d rather have and, more importantly, which one we’d rather be.

Here’s how to take that leap.

Being Ambitious for Yourself and Your Team

“As you unlock your greatness by working on the hard things, you’ll make a difference and you’ll make the world a little better.”
How to Begin

Understanding why you want to be a manager is a really powerful way to stay motivated during hard times.

Personal ambition might be enough to get you into a management role, but tapping into your deeper, internal motivations will help you become the great leader you want to be.

For me, one of the key motivators for becoming a manager was being able to offer routes for people to expand their potential. Your contributions as a leader can help people grow and learn.

You are in an exciting position where you can say: “I can help you unlock your greatness. I can help you bring out your best. I can help you grow and develop and achieve.”

It’s really motivating to think you could go down in someone’s life story as one of those people who helped shape them into the person they are today in the best possible way.

At the same time, you also get to increase your own impact. Now your impact isn’t just capped by your own performance – it’s capped by your team’s. You get to share credit with your cohort for what you achieve as a group.

If you’re smart, becoming a manager also means you can work less hard. I’m sure you feel like there’s always an infinite number of tasks you could be doing. But when you have an effective team, there’s a way to ensure the right tasks land with the right people.

Do this well, and you and your team can work less hard and have more impact.

The Greatest Answers Come From the Greatest Questions

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Eight Ways to Ask a Question Well

The Truth Is We’re All Managers

Some of us strive to become managers, and some have the role of manager thrust upon us.

Whether you’ve been promoted internally for your hard work or actively seeking a managerial role, you have to know how to work with people to succeed.

Even for those people who say: “You know what, I’m just not up for managing people!” The truth is, even if you don’t manage people formally, you manage people informally.

Sometimes, you’ll be in the traditional role of manager overseeing a team. But, whatever your specialty or title, you’ll probably need to manage and influence clients, vendors, colleagues, and even your boss at some point.

So, even though you have a choice about becoming a formal manager, you don’t have a choice about becoming an informal one.

Bringing Out the Best in Your Team: 9 Ways to Embrace Being a Manager

With that in mind, let’s explore the nine daily habits of great managers. With these tips, you can do so much more than enable people to get stuff done. You’ll also help them and you become more competent, self-sufficient, and successful.

1. Become a Connoisseur of Questions

A lot of managers think it’s their job to tell people what to do. Maybe you leap in to solve problems, give advice, and take on responsibilities that others should rightfully keep for themselves. I call this The Advice Trap.

Your intentions are good, but doing this actually undermines you and your team. You end up exhausted, and your team ends up irritated. You unintentionally limit opportunities for growth in those you’re working with.

Staying curious and asking your team questions is a powerful antidote to this problem. It helps your team take responsibility for their work and helps you stop taking responsibility for work that isn’t yours.

A great question is like shining a light on someone’s thinking. It illuminates their blind spots and helps them see new possibilities where they may have been hidden before. This is exactly what you want to achieve as a manager: carving out space for learning.

Here are three of my favorite questions to get you started:

  • What do you already know to be true?
  • How would you answer your own question?
  • What needs to be said that hasn’t yet been said?

2. Be Coach-Like Whenever Possible

Communicating in a coach-like way is truly a powerful leadership behavior, one that helps not just the person being communicated with but also the manager doing the communicating. Despite the term now being pretty commonly used, the actual practice still doesn’t seem to be occurring often.

There are typically two reasons for this – managers don’t think they have time to be coach-like and they don’t know how to get started.

But, actually, being coach-like isn’t an occasional or formal act. You don’t have to say: “Hey, come into my office so I can coach you.” Instead, understand that every conversation, whatever the medium, can be more coach-like. Whether on the phone, in meetings, by text, Teams, or Slack.

To learn how to coach employees, remember this haiku –

Tell less and ask more. 

Your advice is not as good 

As you think it is. 

I expand on this and show you how to make being coach-like part of your management style in my book, The Coaching Habit.

Once you start applying curiosity to everything you do, watch as your people start to generate better ideas and possibilities, and make more courageous choices.

This is the essence of great management – helping others unlock their potential. After all, learning doesn’t happen when you tell people something. It happens when they figure it out for themselves.

3. Notice Your Professional Role Models

Think about all the role models that you have in your life.

Who’s a good boss and a bad one? Who inspires you? Who drives you nuts? All of the people around us show us who we want to be when we become managers. We often just don’t pay that much attention to them.

If you think about it, you already know whose managing styles you like and don’t like. The next step is to pull back and analyze what they’re doing and how they do it, and figure out what you can learn from that.

4. Shift Your Mindset and Think Collectively

The role of a manager involves a seismic mindset shift. For the first time, it’s not just about your work but our work.

This can lead to you feeling like you need to know not only how to do your job but everyone else’s job – which can be overwhelming, to say the least!

You’ll be relieved to know you don’t have to be an expert in everything your team is doing. Rather, you need to help your team make progress – individually and collectively.

Essentially, it’s your job to set the boundaries within which your people can play, to help them understand what work belongs to them and what doesn’t, and ensure the right work fits the right person.

To do this, you need to understand the difference between a person being good at something and being excited by something. So often, we assume that just because someone’s good at something, it’s what they want to be doing.

But, really, the focus should be on helping people do more of the work that has impact and meaning. The more your team’s work has a purpose, the more engaged and motivated they’ll be.

So, find out what matters to your team members as individuals, and help them unleash their ambitions within the context of your organization.

5. Build Strong, Trusting Relationships

Exceptional managers know how to build great working relationships – think of it as being human first and manager second. This starts with showing up the way you want your people to show up – staying human, committing to progress, and being positive.

But it’s worth pointing out that positivity is not being nice. Niceness doesn’t challenge or confront people when their work isn’t up to scratch.

Resist being nice. Instead, love people fiercely. By this, I mean tell them the truth, encourage them, and push them so they hear what they need to hear to reach their potential. That’s how you build trust. And ultimately, that’s how to motivate employees to push their own limits and excel at their work.

Remember as well that every relationship will become suboptimal at some point – whether it’s a good one that goes off the rails or one that was poor from the offset.

You need to stay committed when a relationship’s wheels start to wobble and learn how to fix it when it does. This is a concept I explore deeply in my book, How to Work with (Almost) Anyone.

Lastly, learn that relationship building isn’t just about nurturing relationships within the proverbial boundaries of the office walls.

It’s also about going into the world and finding the people, resources, and collaborators who can help your team thrive. This could be training and development courses, new collaboration tools, or even new hires. The opportunities are limitless.

6. Celebrate Small Wins

There’s a great book by Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle, which shows that people feel content when they make regular progress on stuff that matters.

Keeping that in mind, a powerful secret to creating inspired, engaged teams is to help people make progress, notice this progress, and then celebrate every small win.

Acknowledging those around you and giving credit where credit is due shifts the vibe a little, and in a good way – through positive behaviors and boosted work performance.

How you celebrate will depend on the individual. Some of your team members might like all the bells and whistles, but others may shy away from public recognition. Be sure to pull the right lever to help your people feel good about themselves.

7. Learn How to Offer Up Useful Feedback

From a neurological perspective, the phrase “Let me give you some feedback” hits the same pain circuits as if we were physically punched. But, even though feedback can be painful and awkward, having another person’s perspective and ideas can be incredibly valuable.

Luckily, you can change the way your employees receive your feedback with a few simple tricks. For starters, ask them how they like to receive their feedback. It’s a win-win situation when you’re able to get your feedback heard in a way that doesn’t negatively affect someone else.

When you offer up feedback, spend time untangling the data from your opinions about the data. Once the mist of your judgment dissipates, the facts become clearer. And I’ll bet there’s less data there than you thought.

Lastly, get feedback on your feedback by asking them what was valuable. There’s no better way to learn than by understanding what could be improved.

8. Build a Psychologically Safe Environment

Neuroscience shows us that five times a second, at an unconscious level, the brain is scanning the environment around it and asking itself: Is it safe here? Or is it dangerous?

When the brain feels safe, we operate at a sophisticated level – unleashing creativity, insight, and openness. When it feels in danger, things become black and white – we feel afraid, unengaged, and unable to access that higher consciousness.

Putting that in the context of the workplace, you want your team to engage rather than retreat, to feel that working with you is a place of reward, not risk.

So how do you influence others’ brains so situations read as rewarding, not risky? By focusing on a concept I explore in The Coaching Habit, the TERA quotient – an acronym for the four primary drivers that influence all social situations.

  • Tribe. The brain is asking, “Are you with me, or are you against me?” If it believes that you are on its side, it increases the TERA Quotient.
  • Expectation. The brain is figuring out, “Do I know the future or don’t I?” If what’s going to happen next is clear, the situation feels safe.
  • Rank. This is pretty relative and depends not on your formal title but on how much power is being played out at the moment. “Are you more important or less important than I am?” is the question the brain is asking, and if you have diminished my status, the situation feels less secure.
  • Autonomy. Daniel Pink talks about the importance of this in his excellent book Drive. “Do I get a say or don’t I?” is the question the brain is asking as it gauges the degree of autonomy you have in any situation. If you believe you have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward.

Your job is to increase the TERA quotient whenever you can. Asking questions in general, and asking, “What do you want?” is a fantastic way of doing that.

9. Master the Art of Saying No 

You’ll always have too much work to do. Saying no to stuff is the most essential tool because it allows you to say yes to the stuff that matters most.

But it can be awkward. Because when you say no it feels like you’re saying no to someone. There’s that messy awkwardness of stomping on toes and worrying you’ve let people down.

There are two potential solutions to this.

The first is to shift your focus and learn how to say yes more slowly. Stay curious before committing, asking questions like:

  • “Why are you asking me?”
  • “Whom else have you asked?”
  • “When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?”

The second option is to create a “third point” – an object that you can identify as the thing you’re saying no to, which isn’t the person.

This enables you to say, “I’m afraid I have to say no to this,” which feels a whole lot better than saying, “I’m afraid I have to say no to you.”

Ultimately, you need to think: if you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

This question is a strategic one – one that can help you and your employees evaluate and prioritize what really needs to be done.

You Already Have a Great Manager Inside You. The Key Is to Unlock That Potential.

Being a great manager is not about having all the answers. It’s about asking the right questions.

It’s the ongoing practice of fostering a culture of trust and psychological safety where your team feels empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

It’s about being a coach instead of a boss and helping your people generate solutions that help them learn and grow.

Stay curious, ask thoughtful questions, and give the gift of listening. Your team and your company will thank you for it.

If you want to learn about this in more depth, check out my new book How to Work With (Almost) Anyone

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.