A tech company CTO, Dinesh, recently asked me whether he should fire a product manager, Erica, who was being bossy with his engineering team. Firing someone isn’t a quick Yes or No answer, so we dug into the story a little bit. Erica hadn’t always been as authoritarian, according to Dinesh, so I wanted to understand what had changed, when, and why. I asked Dinesh to tell me about Erica’s journey at the company, and managed to uncover the key event. Erica had seen her feature release go very wrong in public.
“The problems had started a little after this incident.”
We talked about the fallout from the public failure: There was a post-mortem; the engineering team thought the feature was poorly thought through, and made some on-the-fly changes; Erica thought everything would have been fine if the engineering team had built the feature she’d requested.
“How did you resolve that?”, I asked Dinesh. “I told Erica she needed to be a bit more assertive”. Bingo.
Dinesh had given Erica the direction to be more assertive.
Did he expect her to become a dictator? Of course not. Did he tell the engineering team about this directive? No. His attempt to quick-fix the situation had accidentally coached Erica into being a bit of a jerk.
What is so interesting about this situation is that he had no recollection of the details of this situation until we talked about it. This wasn’t a conscious decision. Dinesh gave his direction and moved on, unaware of the friction that started to unfold.
One of my 14 Concepts for New Managers says :
“The more senior you get, the more impact your words have. Choose them carefully.”
This concept still applies if you are in your first managerial role. Even as a first-time manager, your words carry more meaning and weight than they did when you were an individual contributor. Here’s a personal example: I did a Strengthsfinder exercise with my team once. Through Strengthsfinder, you learn about your innate strengths and how to use them. You also learn about what happens when you use them too much.
I asked the team what my “Detail Orientation” skill was like when I used it too much. One of my team found the courage to answer the question. “You ask so many questions”, he told me, “that I often don’t share things with you because I don’t have time to work through the questions”.
I had inadvertently taught my team that the price they paid for bringing data to me was lots more work to gather even more data. Lesson learned. My actions had taught people what to do and not to do. I call this “being an accidental coach”.
An accidental coach is someone whose actions or lack of action reinforce a behavior that they didn’t intend.
The previous example shows an action teaches a behavior. How about where inaction teaches a behavior? An example: As a manager I have a fairly relaxed attitude to set office hours. Why? Many engineers are night owls, so asking them to get into the office for 9am sharp every day is a sure-fire way to lose talented people. I thought this approach worked well. Then I started hearing about some tension in one of my teams. Some team members were frustrated that their manager wasn’t getting to the office “on time”.
I hadn’t given any specific direction about office hours. Some people were emulating my example of rolling in between 9am and 10am. Others were applying the norm of a previous workplace to be at your desk by 9am. I had accidentally coached some of the team into flexible office hours by having unpredictable office hours. One option to fix this was to make my previously implicit expectation explicit, and tell people that they had flexibility to set their own office hours, perhaps with the caveat that they had to discuss hours with people who relied on them. Another option was to defend my right to have a different time-keeping standard from everybody else. I went with the former option.
Accidental coaching can happen even with the best intentions, when we are unconscious of the impact of our words and behaviors as managers. How do you know if you’ve been an accidental coach? You could start with things that aren’t working quite like you’d like them to. You might experience these as annoyances or mild irritations. For example, let’s say you tend to find out about problems too late to do anything about them. That’s annoying as hell. The question to ask yourself is “What do I do when people bring me problems?”. Do you ask lots of questions? Do you tense up and show frustration? Do you ask people why they didn’t see the problem coming? In each case you’re showing your team they did something wrong. And you’re teaching them to avoid sharing potential problems.
It’s hard to avoid being an accidental coach. My guide on creating transparency can help you learn how to make the implicit explicit in a pro-active way. Most of the time, you’ll find where you were an accidental coach after the fact, when you observe people doing something you didn’t expect. When you notice that, start by honestly asking yourself the question “What did I do that taught my team this was the right way to behave?” Then you can start to reinforce the behaviors that you want.