Management Scrutiny

One of the weird things that people don’t tell you about management is the degree to which people will sometimes scrutinize your behavior.

This is completely opposite to how most human interactions work. Generally speaking people overestimate how much attention others are paying to them. It’s easy to be embarrassed if your voice cracks while meeting someone new, if you say something silly in front of your in-laws, or if you have spaghetti sauce on your shirt. In most cases nobody notices because their own life is being pumped into their brain in stereo.

But this isn’t always true. People actually do scrutinize the behavior of people who have some measure of control over their careers (such as the CEO) carefully, and in some cases will even document what they say for a rainy day. This pattern becomes more extreme as titles and organizations grow, to the point where the job of a Fortune 500 CEO almost overlaps with Broadway theater.

The reasons for this are obvious. People aren’t paying attention out of any sort of expectation of wisdom – but when someone has an impact on your job, it’s rational and reasonable to analyze them to help your career. However, I find that few new managers are aware of this phenomenon, which can have far-ranging consequences.

The Awkward Lunch

I remember the first time that I learned this lesson. I was eating lunch with my team as we lightly discussed our upcoming customer conference, and made a quick, dismissive offhand comment about how I felt that one of our marketing teams, led by Steve, was going in circles and wasting time on trivial details. This was 100% wrong – you should never “otherize” other teams – but I didn’t say anything particularly incendiary or critical. Nobody made any mention and I certainly forgot what I had said almost immediately.

Two weeks later, a member of my team offered out of the blue to handle an upcoming planning meeting with Steve’s group. I was confused – why was she making this offer? “Well, you mentioned that you thought that Steve had a tendency to waste time, and I know that you’re presenting at that conference in a week so you’re probably busy. I figured I could help cover a meeting with a team you don’t like.”

A team I don’t like? Where did that come from?! I dimly recalled the lunch in which I had made that comment, and realized that the offhand comment which I had immediately deleted from my mind had stuck with my lunchmates. With a growing sense of dread, I also realized that versions of this situation had probably been happening without my realizing it.

Managing Under a Microscope

Advice that I had received earlier in my career, especially after becoming a new manager: assume that someone might remember everything you say or do. For extra fun, also expect that about 10% of the juiciest details that get remembered will be at least somewhat inaccurate.

Since it can be jarring to realize that your team is watching you a little bit more closely than you might like, I try to convey the general advice below to first time managers on my team:

  • Treat everything that you say like an email – assume that it may live on in someone’s memory for a long time after you say it.
  • Be intentional in how you operate or communicate, as some people (particularly your team) may emulate some of your patterns. If you are really harsh when you communicate with other teams, they’ll tend to be harsher as well. If you’re extremely accommodating, they’ll also tend to be more accommodating.
  • Build the mental muscle of being less reactive to stressful situations. Try not to visibly frown or look skeptical unless you really mean to express that emotion as people will likely pick up on it. This is true even if you’re stressed because you’re thinking about how your corgi Mr. Snuffles is sick, and your bad mood has nothing to do with work.
  • Be extra vigilant not to say things that could be misconstrued as disrespectful or offensive.
  • Don’t get wasted at your company’s holiday party, or at other types of events. While I find that most people will give you a pass, it’s really easy to start rumors after hours.

There is no way to stop people from scrutinizing – it’s human nature mixed with rational behavior. But if you’re intentional in your actions, you should at least be able to avoid putting your foot in your mouth by saying something dumb at lunch.