People say that sh*t flows downhill. They say this when management delegates grunt work that nobody wants to do. However, I think that most sh*t flows uphill: whenever there’s something wrong, somebody upset, some bad news to give, an interpersonal problem to solve, a project off the wheels… the person who has to deal with the brunt of the negative energy coming from that situation is the manager.
When you’re an individual contributor, you mainly see a single person’s concerns: your own. When you lead a team, you see the concerns of the whole team. Some of these you have to solve, some you have to coach others through, some you just have to listen to. All of this takes energy. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been forming a couple of related thoughts on this.
First, I realized that to some extent I define “maturity” as your capacity to operate in the presence of negative energy. The more problems that can hit you and you continue to operate calmly, the more maturity you’re exhibiting. I realized this while coaching and mentoring fairly new managers through the problems on their teams. I was trying to understand why they were so anxious in situations that didn’t scare me much. I was also remembering when I myself was a new manager, and my own manager was trying to understand why I was so anxious. I know I’d handle what I was going through differently, now.
I don’t really know how to build this kind of maturity except to keep going through it. There are only so many times the sky can fall on your head before you stop fearing it. You can think and talk through what the worst consequences might be, and the chances they’ll happen. You can step back for a broader perspective to see past examples or bigger problems. But the truth is, these things are logic, and logic is pretty bad at influencing emotion. Getting more resilient with your emotions takes time and experience.
The second thought about energy is that as a leader you need to recognize that part of your role is to absorb the sh*t. You swallow it and it goes boom in your stomach and wisps of smoke come out of your ears… and then you need to keep mostly functioning. So you need recovery mechanisms for yourself. You need time and techniques to emotionally reset.
Especially as a 2nd-level manager now, thinking about this helps me forgive myself for NOT contributing in terms of directly getting things done. For NOT working long hours all the time, or for walking away to do something relaxing (like playtesting Minecraft!) here and there. The higher you go in management, the wider the sources of sh*t can be, and the less fun they are compared to getting individual contributions done. But you handle them because it keeps the team focused on the stuff they do well.
Don’t read this and think that’s all there is to management. There is joy, too. There is a breadth of contribution you can’t get on your own. But sometimes there is sh*t.