Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Let’s assume you were just promoted into a management job. You know that you got the promotion because you were an excellent performer on your previous assignment, but it used your technical skills. You are worried that you do not have all the skills you need to be an excellent manager. How do you go about learning them? Where’s the best place to start?
What Are Management Skills Like?
In their book, Developing Management Skills, business school professors David Whetten and Kim Cameron explain that management skills are behaviors, not inborn personality traits. These behaviors are under your control, and they can be developed with attention, appropriate knowledge, and practice. These skills are complex, interrelated, and overlapping, but the good news is that one skill supports another. Finally, these skills require a combination of people-oriented and domain-oriented knowledge and the ability to make dynamic trade-offs between competing interests.
So I ask again, where’s the best place to start?
Reflecting on Excellent Managers
At the University of Maryland as adjunct faculty and members of the Center for Applied Positive Psychology in Project Management, Jocelyn Davis and I are teaching a course called Managing Project Teams to engineers pursuing a graduate degree in project management. The course helps students gain the knowledge and skills to be excellent managers.
So we also asked ourselves the same question, where’s the best place to start to help people learn management skills?
Here’s what we settled on. Every week we assign what we call pearl-diving assignments. Students write short essays applying what they’ve learned that week to their own work situations. For the very first pearl, students had two options. One option was answering the following prompt.
Have you had a manager that you thought was truly excellent? If so, describe his or her management style and explain why you found it so good. (Choose this option only if you can answer ‘yes’ to the question.)
We were pleased — and surprised — to see that considerably more than half were able to answer “Yes” to the initial question and then were moved to answer this prompt. Our students are engineers who tend to be technical and quantitative. We had been uncertain about how many would feel they’d had great managers.
12 Clues of Excellent Manager Behavior Emerged
Over the last two semesters, we’ve had 53 students write short essays (2 to 4 paragraphs) on this prompt. Here are the most common themes that emerged starting with the most frequent. The first appeared in 25 essays, the second in 22, and so on.
- Supports career development. Gives stretch assignments. Mentors.
- Knows how to do the job. Leads by example. Technical competence.
- Cares about people beyond work performance. Helps people with practical needs.
- Gives autonomy.
- Communicates well within team – e.g., gives clear directions.
- Has an open door — is accessible to employees.
- Asks for people’s opinions and acts on the information. Is willing to learn from others.
- Is positive and cheerful. Values humor. Detoxes stress.
- Shares information. Enables employees. Watches for occasions where help is needed and gives it in a way that increases rather decreases employee confidence.
- Bears the brunt of mistakes. Shields employees. Deals well with errors and failures.
- Gives credit for good performance. Gives feedback well.
- Trusts employees and is trustworthy.
None of these are surprising — most are described in Whetten and Cameron’s weighty book, Developing Management Skills or in Cameron’s little gem, Positive Leadership, or in the rest of our curriculum. We have students take various self-assessments to build self-awareness. Course topics include psychological capital, strengths-based management, motivation, team formation, ethics, communication skills, positivity in the workplace, and effective feedback.
But each student has a particular real person in mind, not a collection of abstract concepts. They described specific events that illustrated how their managers exhibited these behaviors. Some stated that the manager had changed their lives, and 3 commented that they frequently think to themselves, “What would that manager do in this circumstance?”
Want to Learn? Emulate the Best
Each student that responded to this appreciative question is now primed to think of the behaviors of this manager all semester long. They are primed to believe that management excellence is possible.
I can’t imagine a better place to get started.
Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Linley, P. A., Harrington, S. & Garcea, N. (Eds.) (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford University Press.
Jocelyn Davis wrote a chapter that describes some of the educational goals and processes of the course that she created and that we co-teach.
Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.
Pink, D. (2009). On the surprising science of human motivation. TED Talk filmed July 2009.
This talk includes a statement that rings in my mind: “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”
Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing Management Skills 7th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice-Hall.
This is an expensive book because it’s a textbook. There is an e-book that can be used for a limited amount of time for considerably less money. Go to www.coursesmart.com and search for ISBN: 0-13-174742-8.
Office politics: A rise to the top courtesy of Alex E Proimos
UW Architectural Commission courtesy of wonderlane
Gameface (human warmth) courtesy of SimonDoggett
Table meeting courtesy of BPHA Staff Conference 2005 (Set)