Advice for Women in Management

Update below

Why am I, a weasel, and a male one at that, giving advice to women in management roles?  Because I have something to say.

I have had good managers and bad ones, but the ones who struck me as the worst were female.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Ladies, if you rise up into a management position, you can choose to be a good boss.  Its as simple as getting some good advice and acting on it.  That’s true for men too, but that’s not my focus in this post.

Polls of men and women workers show that they would prefer to work for male bosses.  Among women, the preference for a male boss is stronger than it is among men.   Why is that??  If women prefer male bosses, you can’t blame sexism.  Well, not logically, anyway, but a lot of journalists try.  Women employees are sexist against women bosses?  Sure, dude, whatever.  Stop making excuses.  As an alternate explanation, there may be some typically female behaviors that get in the way of your success as a manager  If you are aware of these behaviors, you can choose alternate behaviors to avoid the negative impacts.

First, stay away from vagueness.  Set clear expectations, in writing where feasible.  Don’t assume people understand everything you want after a few words.  They can’t read your mind.  If your employees don’t know what you want, they can’t give it to you.  This is most important for new hires  They may have some idea what the job is, but they can be wrong.  You have to tell them.  Clear expectations allow you to tell people fairly and directly that they aren’t meeting your expectations.  Written expectations mean you and your subordinates can agree on exactly what is expected.  Having a new hire, or someone who just moved into your own organization, write his own job goals is a mistake.  You, not he, are the expert on what your organization does, and especially on how you want it done, so you tell him.  Workers who have been in the organization may be able to write their own job goals since they already know the job.

On the job, tasks change over time.  Deadlines come up, and priorities change.  Continually communicate as priorities change.  Tell people what is most important, and then let them know when things are due.  Things may include status updates on long-term projects.  For example, there’s a presentation in three weeks, so you want to see a draft in a week.  Not a finished project, but a concept so you can enure the employee is on the right track.  A more polished draft is required next time.  Be clear that the first draft can be rough and you’re going to redirect it at the status review if it’s not going the way you want.  Be clear that the next draft review should look more polished.  Set deadlines, and let people know if they are firm or soft.  Some deadlines are firm.  If there’s no result by the due date, it’s a problem.  Some deadlines aren’t really deadlines, more like suggestions.  Be honest about that.  And then meet on the deadline to see how well the progress is going.  Even a soft deadline is better than no deadline at all, because it helps the employees manage their own workload.  If there’s no due date, a task is never really due, and you have no justification whatsoever to complain when it’s not done.

Once you set priorities, you have to accept that other things are less important (by your decision), and will not get as much attention from your people.  If those other things really need to be done soon and done well, then they need to be higher on the priority list.  But beware of setting everything to high priority.  How many number one priorities can you have?  You can have one.  That’s how that works.

There will be problems, and some problems can be the result of your people.  Don’t blow up.  No yelling, and definitely no crying.  Your job as a manager is to calmly assess a problem and then calmly deal with it.  You can cry behind closed doors all you want, but not in front of your subordinates.  Are you angry at some dumb thing your employee did?  That’s fine.  Assessing your employee is your job.  Deciding that he didn’t get a task done right is your job, as is communicating that fact.  The best way to communicate is calmly.  Yelling in a meeting just makes you look like you’re out of control.  Also, your dissatisfaction is not the problem you should be addressing.  Your employee’s behavior is what needs attention.  What did he or she do, or fail to do?  What should he/she do differently?  What does he/she need to fix?  Specific guidance is better.

Take yes for an answer.  Let’s say you are angry because an employee didn’t finish a task you assigned a while back.  It turns out that you did not assign a due date, so the employee worked on many other things instead of this one.  Since you did not assign a due date, he did not violate your clearly stated requirement, because you never clearly stated it.  But you’re angry because of some personal issues that you brought to work. You raise your voice as you complain that it’s not done.  His response?  I will do it today.  Your options at this point include (a) taking ‘yes’ as an answer and holding him to this new deadline, or (b) continuing to yell at him, in front of others.  What does (b) accomplish?  Your job is not to vent your emotions, but to manage the work he does.  He says he will finish the task today.  Isn’t that what you want?  It’s time to back off, and calmly let him know that you will take the work today.

Apologize when you were wrong, then move on.  Of course, this assumes you are capable of (a) recognizing that you were wrong, then (b) admitting to yourself that you were wrong, and finally (c) admitting to others that you were wrong.  This is not an issue for all female managers, or only for them, but when it’s an issue for females, it seems to be compounded with other issues.  There’s a right and wrong way to apologize.  I would avoid apologizing over hurt feelings, because you can’t control other peoples’ feelings.  You can control your own behavior.  Let’s say you told an employee to write a presentation and show you the draft on Tuesday.  Tuesday comes and goes and you have heard nothing.  Do you address it with the employee? Yes.  Are you annoyed that this deadline was missed? Sure.  Did you stay calm in the discussion?  Yes.  Now there is nothing at all to apologize about.  Did you instead blow up at the employee?  Raise your voice?  Yes.  That’s bad management behavior.  Consider apologizing later, privately, in your office.  Did the employee offer to get a draft done the next day?  Will that work?

Open the door to communication.  Specifically invite criticism, to avoid any perception among your employees that you won’t listen, or that honest complaints about your behavior will be met with reprisals or your own hurt feelings.  Encourage your employees to tell you what they need.  Give them regular opportunities to speak to you privately.  Be open to their criticism.  Consider it, and learn from it. Your critics can be wrong, but they can be right too, and you will only learn and improve if you consider what you hear from them.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned surveys of employees.  Female journalists discussing female bosses accept the statistics that say men prefer male bosses and women have an even stronger preference for male bosses.  Then the journalists try to turn this around into everyone’s fault except the female bosses.  Is a male manager disliked?  Of course its because he’s a jerk.  Is a female manager disliked?  It’s because everyone else in the world is a jerk.  Stop listening to people who say that, because their finger-pointing will prevent you from growing into the best manager you can be.  Is there any truth to the idea that women bosses are disliked because of societal prejudice?  Maybe a little, but so what.  You can’t fix society.  You can fix you.  There’s an old saying in the military: There are no bad troops, only bad officers.  That saying doesn’t fit perfectly into the civilian workforce, but it’s still good guidance.  Your job as a manager is to get the mission done with the people you have.  If you need more people or different people, it’s your job to get them.  If the people you have are not performing to expectation, you have to guide them into success, or sideline them, or replace them.  You have responsibility for making the team succeed or fail.  You don’t get to blame the employees when the whole thing falls apart.  Well, you can try, I guess, but that won’t save you.

I don’t think anything in this article says that you have to be more like a man, or be more ‘tough’.  Being more direct is good.  Being more specific is good.  Focusing on facts and the organization’s needs are good things.  Do those and you can build a reputation as a good boss.

Update June 2021: I have a female manager right now and she’s great.  So far, no problems at all.  She shares a lot of habits with some male managers I worked for before.  Are those male habits?  No, just good manager habits.

2 thoughts on “Advice for Women in Management

  1. So thank you for linking to my post, but I wrote that a long time ago, and my recent experiences have changed.

    I no longer prefer either or, as a boss.. as long as they don’t micromanage me. I just came off a project where the male boss I had was horrible, and another one where the female one was amazing.

    It all depends on the individual. And unfortunately mostly men are in managerial positions which creates that unconscious bias of seeing males as more competent and less terrible, when in fact, if we had half/half, we would likely see equally on both sides being bad or being great.

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    1. Thanks for your clarifying comment! I agree with you that either a male or female manager can be great and either one can be terrible. It is my carefully-considered opinion that there are female traits that lead to difficulty as a manager. Are there also male traits that make some men bad managers? Sure. And some bad manager traits are not clearly male or female. My post started out as reflections on one manager in particular. As it turn out, the few female managers I have had have all exhibited some of the problems noted in my post. I see some of the same (and other problems I didn’t mention) in relationships with women, so I see this as a female thing. My wife has discussed with me her own struggles as a manager. She felt the lack of training in management skills in her company, and envied that I had a lot of management training in the Air Force. So with that in mind, the advice was presented. I hope it helps someone. Thanks again for your reply.

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