The Greatest Management Challenge Of All


One time a few years ago one I inadvertently upset one of my team. We were in a team meeting, progressing through the agenda. Dan (not his real name) started on his subject. He was joking around a bit and I asked him to stick to the subject. In the normal course of things my comment would not have upset anyone. But I could see that Dan was hurt by my comment. Of course I was concerned and immediately after the meeting I went to his office. I apologised for the obvious hurt I had caused. He shut the door. Graciously, he said that he sometimes overreacts to things. He confided that he had been abused as a child and “so things that might be little to some people trigger hurt in me.”

How was I to know that one of my team had been abused as a child and that I needed to be more sensitive in interacting with him? The point is that I wasn’t to know. You often can’t know the pack of cards you are dealt as a manager.


Managers face a challenge unique in human history. Only over the last two centuries have we spent our workdays managing people who are not our family. Over the long course of human history, the natural condition is that we spent our days with our immediate family. Everyone’s history, personality and life experiences were both known to the family and were the responsibility of the family. That was life. But since the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago (and even more recently outside of Western societies) we get to work with people with a range of experiences, good and bad, that shape their identities and leads to the mix of personalities in our teams. We then by chance get to work together, and a manager needs to integrate the variability of personalities and experiences.


At another level, managing at the individual level is critical because humans have a sense of “self”. Only one other animal demonstrates this same sense of self.

Animal Studies

Leif Cocks is a senior primate keeper at Perth Zoo in Australia and President of the Australian Orangutan Project. He was the first person to share with me how scientists study for “self”. First, the animal being studied, say a monkey, gorilla or chimpanzee, is provided with a mirror and left to become familiar with the object. The animal is then lightly sedated and the scientist paints a blue spot on the animal’s forehead. The animal comes back to consciousness and happens upon the mirror. In looking in the mirror, it is only the chimpanzee that is curious about the blue spot and uses a finger on its other hand to try to wipe off the blue spot.


In other words, the chimpanzee appears to know that it’s them in the mirror and that “a blue spot has appeared on my forehead”. No other animal currently studied shows this behaviour. A monkey might scream and drop the mirror. Friends with dogs tell me a dog barks at the stranger dog in the mirror. No other animal sees “self” and it’s only from a sense of our self that we see, acknowledge and understand other selves. (The head of primates at Milwaukee Zoo in the US, Jan Rafert tells me that bonobos will soon be studied using the mirror experiment. Bonobos are as evolutionary advanced as their chimpanzee cousins and one suspects will also see themselves in the mirror).

Implications for Leaders

As leaders, or as HR professionals guiding leaders, the key implication is that we are not so much managing teams as we are leading individuals. As a manager on one of our leadership programs recently said, “Of course! In my team of seven I need to manage each event in perhaps seven different ways in order to effectively relate to my seven staff.”


Here are some tips for leading at the individual level.


Tip 1 – Base Camp


There can be no relationship without knowing the person, which means knowing the person’s identity. The test is that the person knows that you know them. As a leader, how well do you know the people in your team of direct reports? Do you know the following information about each person:

  • Their personal family situation (partners, children, parents, siblings)?
  • Where they were born and where they spent their formative years?
  • The key life experiences that shaped their sense of self?
  • Their personal achievements they are most proud of?
  • Their interests outside of work?
  • Their key work achievements over their working life?
  • Their key skills that they most like to apply?
  • Their motivation as to what they most want to achieve through work?

Without knowing the answers to these questions you can not possibly know the person. Only through knowing a person can we have a connection and the moral authority to lead.  


Tip 2 – Individual Catch-Ups


The single most important leadership action a manager can take to connect with individuals is to schedule regular meetings with direct reports. These meetings should be for one hour and be held at least fortnightly. The meetings provide a platform for respecting and connecting with individuals.


One of the managers I have worked for who held regular and effective catch ups was an executive at IBM called Tony Bowra. As you walked into Tony’s office for your catchup, Tony swung around in his chair and reached into his filing cabinet and pulled out your file – a simple manila folder. He had scratchy notes from your last meeting and slips of paper with “memory jogger” ideas that had crossed his mind since last time. Having an hour with Tony was productive and energising. He sought for ways in which he might help you, we bounced ideas around to progress a task and he checked in with progress on activities so that you knew that he was interested.


Over the years I have found that sometimes the reason causing managers to resist the idea of a regular catchup with their people is that they are unsure what to cover in the meeting. Here are some suggestions:

  • Progress of tasks since last meeting
  • Identifying and removing any roadblocks
  • Discussing ideas of new tasks and initiatives to respond to emerging problems/opportunities
  • Sharing any development/feedback observations
  • Checking in to see if the person needs any support or assistance from you
  • Action points for next meeting.

Because we are dealing with individuals, a manager quickly finds that each person uses the meeting differently. One person might be tasked focused. Another might value the time for conceptual discussions. Another might talk more about personal topics.


If as a manager you start this initiative, you might be surprised by the responses you trigger when you ask towards the end of the meeting, “Is there anything else you wanted to cover today?”


Tip 3 – Birthdays


Sometimes it’s the simple things that work. Beginning in 1999 I had the good fortune of working with a colleague called Cathy Wilks. Cathy taught me a great lesson about individual connection. When we first started working together she said, “I don’t need a lot from my manager. Just don’t forget my birthday!” So simple, yet significant – birthdays are personal, like an individual fingerprint. They are a great opportunity for a manager to recognise the identity of the individual. After that lesson, I never again delegated the action of birthday recognition. I retained the action to acknowledge each person’s birthday and to broadcast their birthday announcement and good wishes to other team members.  


Tip 4 – Senior Executives


What about senior executives connecting with front-line staff? It might surprise you that front-line staff often classify senior executives according to the scale of those executives who “say hello” and those who “don’t even say hello”. Senior executives who say hello are in effect acknowledging and respecting the people as individuals “in the mirror”. Those who do not are ignoring the identity of the person and consequently, in the minds of the individuals, are refused the authority to lead.


A second-level manager of a manufacturing facility once told me that before he started at a new plant he learned the names of all 80 staff in the factory. He said that, “Then on the first day I just needed to match faces to names and to learn something about each person.” He added that he couldn’t imagine how he could connect, lead or influence the 80 people without knowing each individual.


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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