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Almost a year ago I got promoted into my first management position to lead a team of 6. Even though I think I'm doing a passable job and my team is mostly happy with my style of management, I'm hating a big part of the job.

What I like

I like having a say in what projects we do, roadmapping, prioritisation, organising ceremonies and ways of working, especially when it makes everyone's lives easier. I'm also fine with the back-to-back meetings and spending an entire week without writing a line of code.

What I don't like

However, I hate being disliked. Managing a team of 6 along with all the stakeholders means I have to make a lot of unpopular decisions. I struggle with that part the most. It might be a personality flaw that would make me bad for this kind of work, but I don't want to be hasty and decide to leave mainly for that reason and come to regret it later. Also, I feel there are a lot of valuable character-building lessons there, so I don't want to take the easy/comfortable way out.


Is this something I should expect from the position regardless of the environment or is it the nature and speed of work in my current company and the size of my current team that's causing all that stress?

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    What’s an example of the kind of “unpopular decisions” you are making? Unpopular with who, the team or management or other stakeholders? You mentioned earlier this is “90%” of the job, how can that be the case? Why do you think you are “not liked?”
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 23 at 3:27
  • @mxyzplk In some companies at can be a heavy percentage of the job, and it doesn't matter if it's 15% or 90%, they can feel the same either way. Jul 23 at 5:17
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    It might be harsh to say this, but I've seen it before in real life: it seems like you want to have the *status symbols" of management, but you don't want to do the actual work.
    – alephzero
    Jul 23 at 14:46
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    I don’t agree with being feared is the right answer @alephzero I had a lot of really good managers that I’ve worked under and I’ve respected them and respected their decisions, some of them I was friends enough with that they we still see each other outside of work.
    – Nickolozo
    Jul 24 at 0:55
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    making unpopular decision and being disliked are 2 different things. It may come from how you present or justify your decisions.
    – njzk2
    Jul 25 at 21:10
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I have a couple of thoughts in this area since you're expressing similar concerns as managers I've coached and/or led. You are correct in that every leadership position will require you eventually to make a decision that is unpopular. It comes with the territory. As for your happiness about it, there are a number of factors at play here. The first is the obvious one that you've already identified.

You don't handle being disliked well.

Sometimes as a manager you have to make hard decisions, and they don't always come out the way everyone would like. This will make people disgruntled and unsettled, and that can lead people to disliking you. The problem is that you're addressing this at the wrong time. With every direct report, you have a "credit account" of good will, and you have to deposit into this account every time you can during times when decisions are easy and actions are to everyone's benefit. By establishing a pattern of empathy, concern and good will towards your direct reports, they will trust you to have their best interests at heart even when you have to make a decision against them.

Find out what their needs are, what their goals are, what their dreams are. Do what you can early and often to advance those things. Show them results. Then, during the times when you have to make an unpopular decision, instead of resenting you they'll walk the line with you knowing that you did what you could for them. There's a line in a movie that I use when explaining this to my managers: "When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain."

You aren't acting in accordance to your "value proposition".

As an individual contributor it was simple to realize your value. You did a thing, it benefited the company or a person, and you immediately knew that you'd done a good thing and people appreciated it. You're a manager now. Your value proposition isn't immediate anymore. When you do a thing, it can be weeks or even months before that effect pans out, and by that time no one really knows you did it. You probably don't even recognize that you did it.

You need to start keeping track of the things you do, the decisions you make, the direct reports you help. You also need to start collecting both the "wins" and the "incidents" for your section. Every so often you need to try to correlate the things you do with those wins and incidents. This will help you find the value proposition. If you help a direct report by advocating for a training class to learn a new skill, then 6 months later that skill leads to a promotion. That's a 6 month difference between action and value realization.

I think you're having a "values" crisis.

We are most happy when we're behaving in a manner according to our values that helps us pursue goals. Some questions that I think would be good for you to answer for yourself:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. What are you hoping to achieve as a manager?
  3. Why are you managing people in the first place?
  4. What are your personal values?
  5. What do your behaviors say about your personal values (they may not be the same)?

To put it into context, when I became a manager it took a while to realize that my goal was to produce the best software that helps the most people as I could. As an individual contributor I could only do so much of that. As a leader, I can help 5/10/50/100 people do it. My impact can be so much greater. I have to empower and enable people to do it though, so that became my mission. Their goals and their dreams became why I manage people. I can achieve my goal by helping them achieve theirs.

I considered my top 3 values at one point. I thought it was a great exercise. I came up with "integrity", "persistence", and "resourcefulness". These felt right to me. Then a colleague said (out of the blue) as we were discussing it, "I wonder how other people perceive our values." It was such a simple innocent statement, and it hit me like a hammer. It doesn't matter what I think my values are. It matters what my direct reports think my values are.

I polled my team and the final question of the poll was "Based on my behaviors, what do you think are my top 3 values?" I made the choice that I either had to accept what they said or figure out a plan of action to change how they perceived me. They came up with "integrity", "servant leadership", and "faith in us". I'll take that every day of the week, and so I work to make sure those stay the values people perceive of me.

I suggest you figure out what your values are. How do your direct reports perceive your values? If they're different, what are you going to do about it? I think if you're working in accordance with your values it won't matter if you're an individual contributor or a leader. You'll find happiness in what you do.

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  • Thanks for your answer Joel, can you elaborate a bit more on the "credit account" concept please and provide an example if possible?
    – Nickolozo
    Jul 23 at 6:48
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    There are things you do as a manager that build trust and that erode trust. That's the "account" concept. Example: a person in my team told me he was interested in a different role in the company (which would mean leaving my team). I did what I could to help him explore it: connected to the right people, made some time so he could work with them, connected him to "neutral" mentors for advise etc. This did build a lot of trust since it showed I put his needs over mine and I really cared about his career.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 23 at 12:25
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    @Nickolozo: Hilmar's example is a great one. The part that takes it to the next level is that even if the direct report had left the team, they would have talked to their peers and shared their story. As much good will and trust would be built with the direct report, that would spread to the rest of the team. If you're doing the same for them it just provides a cascade effect. Jul 23 at 14:02
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    @Nickolozo: As for my own example, I have been leading an engineering organization for about a year and teams within that org for a few years. I've helped multiple people reach promotions, new jobs, and we've had a record of success in our delivery. Recently, a customer commit caused me to have to make them work overtime, cancel PTO and even 2 people working while on vacation. They trusted me that it was the right decision because I've spent several years building up that trust. When this project releases, I have to build it again. Jul 23 at 14:05
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Managing is mostly about:

  • Resolving conflicts between your people
  • Resolving conflicts between your people and other people in the company
  • Balancing between company needs and employees wishes
  • Making decisions in an uncertain environment, when not everybody will like what you decided.
  • (if needed) Motivating your people to do the work
  • Mentoring them to grow and become better

As a manager, it is possible to become better in each of the above items. But - if you hate most of the items on the list... maybe consider a different job than management.

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Make sure your decisions are based on your team's input

I can think of one very good team leader I had. Where possible, his technical decisions came from a consensus from the team. Engineers being who we are though, we fairly regularly had disagreements about the best way to do something. In that case, we all got together in a room with Jim, and put our points of view for and against the different options, with Jim basically moderating/chairing so that we didn't just go round in circles. Then he'd make a call and that was that. Someone would inevitably be disappointed and might grumble about the technical implications, but we knew we had to move forwards and there were no hard feelings. (As heroes go, it's fair to say that when I get stuck, I still have a little voice at the back of my head saying "what would Jim do?" :)

Conversely I have also (at another company) had a manager who was simply the smartest person I've ever met. Read maths research papers for fun, that kind of thing. If you wanted help on a seriously difficult problem, he could probably crack it for you in 10 minutes flat. The trouble was, if you had something that looked technically interesting then he'd constantly be looking over your shoulder, and he was always looking for the new shiny stuff. Consequently he made some questionable architectural decisions which all the engineers were opposed to for good technical reasons, and we explained our reasons, but he ignored them because he knew better. I loved working with him because he pushed me technically, but I try to avoid his way of managing people.

And if you can't, make sure your team know it's coming from valid outside input

If upper management need something done, you have to do it. You don't criticize upper management in front of your team, but you do present it as "sorry guys, but this needs doing and you don't get a say in this".

Or sometimes there'll be other outside reasons for it - maybe coding standards, maybe legal requirements, maybe beta test feedback. It may not be popular with your team, but it still needs doing.

In all those kind of cases, you need to be clear what those reasons are. It needs to be well sourced, not just an arbitrary "because I say so".

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    Where I worked, I observed that most people thought their direct boss was pretty smart and thinking about the right things when making decisions. When a manager was far enough up the ladder that you didn't talk to them directly at least once per month they became an idiot. Being unpopular with your direct reports means you need to talk to them more and listen to their concerns. They will then feel they have been heard and their viewpoint considered. If you decide otherwise you can often explain it. Jul 25 at 22:09
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    +1 Getting buy-in to decisions, and explaining the reasoning behind them is key, and that all boils down to communication. When you are a manager, your need to communicate grows exponentially. Jul 25 at 23:32
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Yes, as a leader you have to make decisions, and you will encounter situations where any reasonable course of action will leave at least some people dissatisfied.

But being a good leader includes the ability to sell even unpopular decisions to your subordinates, peers and superiors. You need to convince people that your decision is a necessary evil. That you carefully evaluated all the options and that the decision you made is the best course of action under the circumstances. Make sure people understand your reasons well, so you are not accused of not thinking things through or making decisions based on ulterior motives. When people understand why you made a decision, then it will be much easier to get their support even if the decision is not the ideal one for them personally.

This principle is called leadership by persuasion. Lots of people wrote a lot of essays and books about it.

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