A reader writes:
I am a fairly new (five weeks) supervisor for a small team of creatives — we all work together on our projects. I have noticed that when my team has a request, they have almost all have a habit of making it a statement rather than a question. For example: “I have to come in a hour late on Tuesday,” or “I’m modifying the teapot color in this tea set.” To be clear, I have the final say on these decisions, and the team knows this. I find this habit grating, as it assumes that I will always agree and accommodate these requests.
Am I being too sensitive to a harmless habit? If not, how would you recommend addressing this? Virtually all of these requests are either reasonable requests I would approve anyway.
Yep, you’re being too sensitive to it.
They’re not saying “I’m going to do this my way no matter what you say.” They’re saying “Here’s what I plan to do,” and the subtext is “let me know if you want me to do something differently.”
And this is actually a good thing. You will be a much better manager if you treat your employees like responsible, trustworthy, professional adults, and give them maximum leeway to own their work and use their judgment.
In general, when you’re dealing with competent, responsible adults, you shouldn’t expect them to ask for permission for something like coming in an hour late or even taking a day off. You should trust them to manage their own schedules and just keep you in the loop, and you can speak up if something will be a problem. And because there might be times when you do need to ask someone to handle something differently, it’s reasonable to expect your staff to give you advance notice when possible so that you have a chance to speak up if needed — like saying, “Actually we have a client coming in then and ideally I’d like you here — do you have any flexibility on the time?” or “before you change the color, tell me more about why you’re thinking you want to change it” or “we’re actually contractually obligated to keep these teapots blue” or so forth.
There are managers and workplaces that do expect people to request permission every time for things like this. But people who aren’t used to working in that kind of environment will generally bristle at it (and rightly so).
I don’t know if you’re a new manager in general, or just a new manager to this particular group. But if you’re a new manager in general, I also want to mention that it can take new managers a while to get the balance right when they’re exercising authority. It’s not uncommon for new managers to take too heavy a hand with their authority, and that makes them less effective managers. The thing to remember is, you have authority and you can exercise it whenever the work actually requires it. You don’t need it to be present in every interaction; it’s far better to just be confident in your ability to pull it out when you need to. Think of your authority as one of many tools you have in your toolbox to get things done. You don’t need to bring your hammer into every interaction; you just turn to it when you actually need it.
In fact, wanting to preserve a sense of hierarchy in every interaction will actually make you look less secure in your authority. You will look more in control and like a stronger manager if you have a team of strong professionals to whom you give real ownership of their work (to the greatest extent that’s practical — which will vary greatly depending on what type of roles you manage) and don’t expect them to seek your approval for every small thing.