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Morality & Me - Episode 3: On becoming a Manager

I was 25 when I completed my Masters in Human Resources, and subsequently moved to the UK. As I started settling into the world of work, seeing its dynamics, and the way people were progressing through their careers, I set myself the goal to become a manager by the time I was 30. Why? Undoubtedly there was something about status and personal achievement. That same feeling I had when I got my first job with a large household name company, that this farm boy was playing in a different world now; something too about thinking that if others around were able to get into such levels of responsibility, why shouldn't I? And that idea of being seen and referred to as "the boss" by others. Looking back nearly twenty years later, all very shallow motivations, which if anything reflected some of the expectations and ideas of success which had been engraved in my head through my childhood and teenage years, be it by family, education, or the media. Right on schedule, I managed to get my first formal (rather than other "first amongst equals" responsibilities given in the past) role as a manager, and when I now think back to these first years of leading others, what comes back to me isn't anything to do with status, or power, but the sheer scale of the responsibility which came with leading, guiding and supporting other people, through their job, career, challenges and much more, and the influence my own actions could have on their experience, success, and ultimately happiness. This is why this aspect of my career has a place in this series on morality. My experience of leading teams has been packed with questions about doing the right thing, daily dilemmas between conflicting pressures from people, clients, and deliverables. Yet something I still consider as the one of the greatest honours one can be given in a career.

Blood, sweat, and tears. Mostly tears.

The first manager role I took on just before turning thirty was in quite a complex and challenging service-provision environment. Services which had been outsourced by a global blue-chip company, carrying both great expectations from the client, and the emotions typically coming with the transfer of activity and staff. This made the work of the consultants in my team particularly difficult, and my first gig as a manager a bit of a baptism of fire. Quite rapidly, I got into one to one conversations with team members consumed by stress, high workloads, and difficult customer relationships. It came to a point where I would rarely spend a day without, at some point, a team member being in tears. From my perspective, these would be times of significant moral ambiguity. As a fresh manager, I was all too conscious of needing to establish myself, on the one hand, with the team in the support I was able to give them, and, on the other hand, with my own managers and clients in ensuring continuity and quality of service. The empathetic human being in me would often be tempted to join in with my own tears, feeling how challenging certain situations were for the team, in agreement that these weren't the conditions anyone would want to work in. Yet for the team, I was expected to be in a position to do something about it; and at the same time could also hear "the voice of the company" in my head, wanting me to focus on de-escalating the situation and resuming operations. In the end, it was down to me to decide for myself what "the right thing" was in each situation. And whichever direction I would go, I would need to justify to myself why it was right, which could involve various mechanisms, such as convincing myself that one of the parties involved was being unreasonable, that I was making a decision in the best interest of the majority (the utilitarian approach I have previously described), or that it wasn't as important as it was made out to be. These mechanisms, to disengage feelings of guilt or remorse, would be essential for people in such circumstances to be able to continue to function without spiralling into overwhelming negative feelings.

A question of identity

Becoming a manager meant assuming a brand new sense of identity, which was a fact to others around due to my title and responsibilities, yet something I still had to do some work to fully accept and make sense of myself. Here again, I was greatly influenced by the image of "the manager" I would have built for myself based on my own experience, observations, and the image portrayed through others. That said, this aspirational manager I had in mind clashed in certain ways with my other identity - or rather identities. Surely, I would need to become more serious, dial down the humour for fear of losing credibility? Keep a certain distance with others, remember that I should be a figure of authority? Stop sharing so much about my personal life with others? Be better informed about football and politics and have an opinion on everything? For a while, this template of the perfect manager was there in the back of my mind when deciding how to act and behave. And sometimes, the real Fabien would have to take a back-seat, all the while kicking and screaming from back there. This too was an internal conflict which would be draining, and at times soul-destroying. And this is where, luckily, mechanisms of self-regulation started kicking in. The real Fabien was kicking and screaming so loudly from the back seat, that letting him come out became a more bearable prospect than keeping him hidden. And interestingly, I think that the challenging environment we were operating in at the time made this degree of authenticity and openness even more welcome and appreciated by others, and helped me work with my team in a more effective partnership to make things better.

Tough love

Of course, this doesn't take away the fact that, as a manager, I was also there to deal with situations of inappropriate behaviour, poor performance, or operational errors. Situations like these are at best uncomfortable for most managers, and I was no different - having been told a few times that I was "too nice" as a manager (much to unpack in this alone, but I will keep it for some other time..). Having to have difficult conversations or deliver challenging messages to people which ultimately you feel like you have some responsibility over, and knowing the impact this may have can indeed create a feeling of moral ambiguity, and a feeling of being torn between supporting the individual's interests, and the organisation's interests. The context in which these situations take place does however have a great impact on how, as a manager, I would approach them. If on the one hand there was a clear case of misconduct or negligence, it would in a way be easier to get into a discussion; from a moral perspective, my team member would have done something which is easier to classify as "wrong", and I was there to work with them on managing the implications and consequences of such actions, whatever they were. When however a difficult message would result from a wider organisational decision, something I wouldn't necessarily agree with, it became much more difficult to make sense of and process without great feelings of discomfort, generating high degrees of stress and difficulty to process and move past. One example other managers may relate with concerns the allocation of performance ratings or scores, or promotion decisions, when these would need to follow certain ratios, or distribution. In some cases, despite making a genuinely favourable case, the outcome of peer comparisons, leadership discussions (with all the politics and dynamics involved) would fall very short of what the team member might expect. Of course, one might argue that it is part of the role of the manager to implement decisions signed off at higher levels of authority. In practice, this involves a mental torture of trying to make sense and explain a decision which isn't internalised by the manager themselves. To cope, here too some might use various strategies. The more common would be to distance themselves from the decision, and openly express to the team member that this wasn't a decision that they supported; this may help the manager to move past this situation, however won't help guide the team member through this difficult episode. Another one might be to minimise the impact of the decision, and the value and significance of the process altogether, which can also be more difficult from the perspective of the team member, especially if there is a financial impact involved. All in all, for a manager to deliver a difficult message they do not feel that they own involves a large amount of emotional labour, and uses up a good deal of personal resources, with the very likely impact to impact their own mental well-being. Ensuring good participation of managers in decisions impacting their teams will help them integrate these for themselves, and mitigate the toll that it may take on them. This is often something which could be overlooked, as the outcome of a decision will have much more tangible effects on the impacted team member, and a manager is unlikely to raise their own concern for fear of being unreasonable in comparison. This makes it all the more important to adequately support and provide them with the right resources.

The best possible legacy

Managing a team, with the appropriate degree of care, support, guidance and empathy can be hard work. Or rather, it can be emotionally demanding. Another way of helping managers make sense of it, and one that becomes clearer as we build experience, is to make sure to take the time to notice the positive impact we might have had on certain people, at a personal level, and in their career. I was lucky to have supported a few team members over the years in gaining a degree of expertise in their field, working towards promotions, figuring out where they wanted to go in their career, or also supporting them through challenging times, professionally and personally. And I would never claim credit or responsibility for any of these, as ultimately the individuals themselves did the work. However being able to look back and think that some of the things I might have said to them, or ways I might have behaved with them may have played a part, as small as it might be, in them getting into a better place in their lives, or setting them on the right path, makes all these challenges worthwhile, and continue to give me, years later, renewed energy to face new ones.

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