Life at Work

The Mark of a Good Manager

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

Two weeks ago, we tackled what people don't like about supervisors.

Enough of the negativity. This is the week we talk about good managers and why their attitudes and efforts make employees feel inspired, happy and involved in their work.

What was so encouraging to those looking for a little sunshine was that I received many more responses when I asked for people to share their stories of good managers.

The overriding theme in the e-mails: Good managers empower their employees.

Anne Collette said her boss's best trait is that he trusts his employees to do the work. "He will give his employees an area of responsibility and consistently defer to that employee for that area," she said in an e-mail. "This accomplishes three things: It shows that he trusts the employee. It forces the employee to take responsibility and proactively problem-solve. It gives the employee control over his work."

Collette, who works in Rosslyn in the aerospace industry, has advice for those micro-manager types who are afraid to delegate, and therefore trust, staff. "Start small," she says. "Delegate tasks that will not adversely affect the company if they are not done well. When you are satisfied with the employee's performance, delegate a more challenging task."

Others said their good managers did not punish them for asking a question. In freeing employees to ask questions about the work or a management decision, a manager is thereby empowering them to figure more things out and possibly try something new.

Kate Russell, an account representative with a data-management company in Falls Church, said she was thrilled to move to a company where her manager's door is open. "She looks me in the eye when speaking to me, and sets up times to sit down and explain new projects and procedures. She also encourages me to ask any questions I have, saying she'd rather I double-check and have a great product than not ask and send the client bad quality."

That seems like a no-brainer because an employee who asks questions is one who provides better service for clients and therefore makes a better company. But, unfortunately, we have all heard of or experienced those managers who are simply not available for questions or make one feel as if asking a question is the equivalent of saying: "Hi, I'm a bad employee. You should have never hired me."

"I do much better work now because I no longer fear getting punished if I don't understand something new," Russell said.

But just because a manager is nice all the time does not mean a manager is good. A manager who is truthful -- and that means someone who is willing to tell us when we've messed up -- is a good manager, according to Josh Burgess, a lawyer based in Sherman, Tex. When he worked for the Air Force, his boss was one who would back up employees whenever things went bad. "If he got a call from another commander complaining about our work, he would support us. However, if we were in the wrong, he would take us to the woodshed," Burgess said. "It was great to have him support us in public and reprimand in private." The reward for the boss? "All of us would do anything for that guy!"

Sometimes it's the seemingly little things that managers do to create a loyal employee. For Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, who works at a nonprofit group in Washington, it's that his manager has "gone to bat for me over and over again." He needed a special computer because of repetitive stress syndrome, but the IT department is notoriously slow. "She hounded and nagged them for months until the computer was finally sitting on my desk," he said. His manager took the same approach with the human resources department when his visa application was inexplicably stalled. Of course, fixing both of those issues helps the company, particularly if an employee is a good worker. But too often we hear of managers who put off these tasks because they are busy with other work. Managers who take the extra time to make sure their employees are taken care of will receive just what Mukhopadhyay said his manager gets: "Because of her willingness to fight for me, I'm more than ready to go the extra mile on the job."

Jennifer Hamilton writes that her boss at a research and consulting firm in Rockville is a "fabulous manager" who asks her staff members what they think of various management decisions and why. "And the cool thing is that she actually listens to our answers," Hamilton said. "This not only empowers us and gives us buy-in to the projects we work on, it also grooms us for future promotions."

This same boss gives credit when it's due, something the not-so-good managers don't do. She also does something some managers definitely neglect: She fires people who don't pull their own weight "because it is not fair to the rest of the team to hold on to dead wood," Hamilton said.

In addition, this manager takes an interest in her employees' lives. "She knows who has a sick mother in the hospital, when a co-worker's child says his or her first word, and when someone is going through a bad breakup. As much as we pretend otherwise, our outside lives DO affect our work performance," Hamilton wrote to me. She sums it up best this way: "This supervisor is not only a mentor to her staff, but also a friend. And that is why I stay at this job, and why we all work so incredibly hard. We want her to be proud of us."

We all know it's not just the managers who make or break a department or morale. So it's time to hear from the managers: What have you encountered that makes a trouble employee? What specific tips do you have for employees that would help the company? E-mail Amy Joyce Join her from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work.

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