Less is More
Key Technical Matters
No touching. That includes high-fives, hugs, two-handed forward-facing shoulder grabs, back rubs, cheek pinches, noogies and all other forms of touching, excluding the handshake.
No berating of an employee in front of others.
In fact, no berating ever.
Also: No berets. Unless you're managing a battalion of Green Berets. In which case you should also feel free to openly berate ... sir.
No playful e-mails.
No scornful e-mails.
No e-mails that would someday look really embarrassing or criminal if read out loud in a court of law.
No trying to solve personal problems between two employees. They got in the mess. They can get themselves out.
No soliciting employee input on your own personal problems.
No planning after-work outings without first asking yourself, "If I were an employee, would I want to spend time with my boss outside of work?"
No pauses for longer than five seconds.
No employee friend requests on Facebook.
No employee friend requests in person.
No threats of winking.
No compliments about employee's style of hair, fit of pants, clarity of skin, choice of spouse, duration of restroom visit, etc.
Compliments about cut of jib are fine.
Easy on the thumbs-up.
Of the tools at a manager's disposal--meetings, delegation, assistants, fear, the key to that one closet that no one else seems to have access to--restraint is probably the most underrated. Discretion. Holding back. Not doing things. There's a whole industry set up for how to actively manage employees. There are books and websites and "learning systems" and seminars. What there aren't enough of are guides to being less of a boss. This is gonna be about that.
My father started out as an accountant at Apple in the '80s, then became CFO of various other tech companies. (In general, I would suggest that anytime a writer invokes either of his parents this early in a story, you should immediately stop reading that story. In this case, I humbly ask you to bear with me.) As you can imagine from someone who came up with Steve Jobs early on, my father's approach to managing is as philosophical as it is practical. Twenty or so years ago he typed up some thoughts about being an accountant and about being a manager, and when I was in college, he shared them with me.
Many of the items are specific to his profession, but there are other more general rules about the workplace and life. The only one I remembered until rereading the document recently was: No touching. Of employees, of customers, of vendors, of peers. Anything other than a handshake is outside the boundaries of professionalism.
I've always loved the "no touching" rule. At first it seems a little repressive, fussy and small. But like all great "don't" rules, it's actually freeing. While it places a limit on a manager's behavior, it has the effect of eliminating all kinds of mixed messages that can confuse people and stifle work and creativity.
It suggests that the manager should be professional and discreet and, more important, should never do anything that might compromise the professionalism and discretion of employees. Which is the key to the whole philosophy of being less of a boss, really. (And has the added benefit of, uh, fewer sexual-harassment claims.)
My father's document had other "don't" rules:
Don't fall in love with companies. People last. Your company may not.
Don't try to fix problems between two people. Whenever you try to fix this kind of problem, you create a new problem that can be fixed only by getting out of the way.
Don't bail people out. They will learn only that you will bail them out, and you will end up doing their job.
Don't lie. There are things you cannot tell certain people even if they ask. But you have a responsibility to tell them that you cannot tell them.
Don't be responsible for other people's careers. If these people are in the organization that reports to you, you are responsible only for their jobs, not for their careers.
Don't take credit. And don't ever place blame.
Things a manager should never do, according to a person who isn't my dad
In the interest of doing a little reporting that involves someone other than one's own father, we called Claudine Cheever, chief strategy officer at advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi New York, to find out what's on her "don't" list.
Don't rely on the same people to do the same things. "Once someone performs on something, there's a temptation to use that same person again, but that demotivates the whole team. Stretch people to do different things so you have a team with diverse talents; creatives are happy when they're challenged."
Don't always listen to the loudest person in the room. "The person with the loudest voice isn't always the person with the best ideas."
Don't assume that only money makes people happy. "Money is really important, but recognition and joy are equally important. Oftentimes when people quit, it isn't because they got offered a job with more money--that'll be the rational alibi--but it's because they lost connection to the organization."
Don't wait for employees to come to you when they're unhappy. "You should know when they're unhappy before they're unhappy."
And one of the best rules we've ever heard:
Don't try to have a good meeting. "Sometimes you have to have a bad meeting to get to greater creativity, because you're trying to create change. Don't coach people to always please the client and always have a good meeting. Don't tell them to be good little boys and girls."
"Don't" Advice From Extremely Famous Managers
We looked back at the Esquire archives and found these pithy nuggets:
Jack Welch: "Don't linger."
Carol Bartz: "Don't work with assholes."
Richard Branson: "Don't put out crap."
(Another thing a manager should never do: Use the term "pithy nuggets.")
The best part about the "don't" approach is that it requires less time, effort, money, meetings, team-building exercises, doughnuts, etc., than the "do" approach. In fact, it requires none of those things. You're doing without doing anything at all. And in business, there's no better deal.