Hands On Management Is Great Unless The Hands Are Always On

“If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely to Be Happy at Work”, said Harvard Business Review.

That means,

employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business.

Indeed an old assumption, one going back to days of middle age guilds, that true mastery is stolen not taught, turned out to be true. It would appear that hands on management is good.

But don’t close the tab yet, there is more to this than meets the fold.

The problem with hands on management is when the hands are always on.

Why? Because:

  • hands on activity lowers cognitive availability for management

The lower cognitive availability is not because of multitasking, as multitasking lowers cognitive ability, it is because hands on activity engages the fast thinking system, executes things we know, recalls memory we’ve used and used again, while management deals with uncertain input, engages the slow thinking system, requires the learning of new things and so on.

Management is any activity that creates empowerment.

Empowerment is the complex result of of ability, motivation, drive and action.

So before you roll up your sleeves ask yourself if the “hands on” work you’re about to do meets this criteria:

  • it causes action: you demonstrate a technology, you push decisions through the chain.
  • it gives ability: you mentor someone in some professional aspect, you remove a roadblock in someone’s activity.
  • it inspires motivation. you create organizational momentum, you create a team spirit when things go though, you lead by example.
  • it builds drive, you write the bootstrap for a project, you create clear roadmaps, you demonstrate impacts.

As a manager, competence in your team’s domain is great, however you must calculate whether your input helps your managerial role. If it is simply work that accelerates a deadline, striking out items in backlogs, or the worst of them all:

doing things because nobody else does it like you do it, suffering from the haze of too much expertise

… then you are a bad hands on manager.

Hands on managers who have a hard time recruiting will be the most affected. They will tend to cover for the fact their teams are understaffed. There is only one time when actually going into the work shedding the manager cape and taking on the nitty gritty of a too small team is good: critical situations. Situations as in moments in time, not as in critical projects, critical path tasks and so on.

If you are a manager with understaffed teams that handles so many critical situations that you find yourself constantly drowned in hands on activities you either handle it at an organizational level or you reduce scope.

Non critical teams can function understaffed without reducing scope by simply becoming resource hogs in organizations: consuming time. Critical teams with good managers reduce scope.

Management is what makes businesses more or less successful, responsible and sustainable. By taking care of how much “hands on” you allow yourself to be, you will have a greater impact on what matters for the business.

For a manager having their hands too full with anything but management the antidote is found up the ladder in the organizational chain of command, and instinctively it is used by endless meetings and useless reporting. The intent is always positive, but filling up cells in spreadsheets is not empowering anyone.

So if you manage managers, save them from too much “hands on”: use retrospectives, constantly seek out to adapt and reevaluate things like mission, market fitness, product bloat, useless development and so many other management empowering activities, which discourage time wasted doing the work of those who are supposed to train in the work.

I have met many good professionals who forgot being managers because of time constraints, bad communication skills or simply a poor understanding of what management is supposed to be. Those who didn’t turn into crappy micromanagers ended up unhappy, overworked and burned out. So, no matter how outstanding your skills are, don’t fall into the expert savior trap for your own sake and the good health of the business that employs your service.

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