In response to my recent article about dealing with employees’ attendance problems, TechRepublic member canucks wrote to me and asked, “What if the supervisor is the one with spotty attendance?”

She said her manager’s attendance issues were creating morale problems with her help desk team. This brings up an important point, which all new IT managers need to be sensitive to: The actions and attitudes of managers can have a profound effect on a work team’s ability to function effectively. The old adage of “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work well in management. Staff members usually keep a close eye on their leaders as role models and to discern signals about what is really important in the work environment. In canucks’ case, the manager who arrives late and calls off on a regular basis is sending signals to staff that attendance is not a priority and does not have to be taken seriously.

As a manager, it is vital that you recognize the importance of being a positive role model and use your behavior and attitude to set the tone for an effective work environment.

Actions speak louder than words
You can greatly improve your chances of success by maintaining an awareness of the impact your behavior has on staff. You might not like being the focus of such scrutiny, but it is an important aspect of the manager-staff relationship. When you become a manager, you can promote a successful transition for your team leadership by sending positive signals about what behaviors and attitudes are important. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you are new to the organization or team, proceed slowly in stressing what is important. Spend time learning the formal and informal ways of behaving and communicating that are part of the organization or team culture. For example, some teams may have developed a tendency to not discuss issues in the open. Although this may seem dysfunctional, you can run into trouble by violating this informal rule. Over time, you may have opportunities to change such informal rules or standards. However, to violate such rules or standards up-front may be perceived as insensitive or disrespectful to team members or customers.
  • Never forget how you felt about managers or supervisors who did not live up to the expectations they had for their staff. Ask yourself if you want team members to feel the same way about you as you did about former managers who didn’t mirror the behaviors they said were important.
  • Identify the behaviors and attitudes you most want your staff members to exhibit. Think about the ways you have mirrored those behaviors and attitudes in your work with team members and with customers. If you have a hard time thinking of examples, you need to focus more on this aspect of your management approach.
  • Competent and respected managers are not perfect managers. Perfection is not the goal or condition you want to strive for. Instead, you want to show staff that you are committed to the behaviors and attitudes you promote as being important. You’ll make mistakes, and there will probably be times when you do not reflect your values and expectations in quite the way you want. However, staff members can be very forgiving if they believe that their leader sincerely values them as employees and respects the high standards being set for the team.
  • Identify and appreciate the things you do well and acknowledge the things that need to be improved. All managers, especially new ones, need to understand their strong points, which serve as the foundation for building successful management careers. But it’s equally important to identify and acknowledge weaknesses and things that can be improved. You can use these issues to develop a training plan and improve overall performance.

An example
The following scenario may help demonstrate some of these points. Andy is a new IT manager who was promoted from a technical position on one team to the team leader of another team within the same organization. After the first week in his new position, he noticed that team members did not communicate much with each other. They tended to do their own work and discussed issues only when absolutely necessary.

Andy was accustomed to working in an environment where people worked as a team and information was shared freely, so he called a meeting of all team members and asked them to share what they were doing and the issues they were facing. Members seemed uncomfortable and were resistant to his efforts to foster communication. One member even asked why it was important for people to know what he was doing.

Andy was perplexed by his new team’s behavior and thought about how he could improve communication. He spoke to a friend who was a senior manager to get some ideas. He indicated that Andy needed to slow down a little and work to change the team’s behavior gradually over time. He also advised Andy to work on getting members to attend scheduled meetings on a regular basis and said that he should model the type of behavior he wanted to see from members. Andy scheduled weekly team meetings that all members were expected to attend. During each meeting, he shared the activities and goals he had in mind and discussed his plans for using the skills and experience of all team members.

Andy made sure to schedule the meetings at a consistent day and time and did not postpone or cancel a meeting for any reason. He initially had attendance problems. However, he gradually incorporated the meetings into the team culture by making sure to never miss one himself and consistently reinforcing their importance. Attendance improved greatly over time and members began to share their issues and ask and receive feedback from each other.

The moral of this story is that managers can enhance the effectiveness of a team’s performance by being sensitive to how they react to issues and how they behave. It is not likely that Andy would have been very successful with the team meetings if he had not demonstrated their importance, shown his commitment, and mirrored the kind of behavior he wanted to see from members.

Final thoughts
New managers can greatly increase their chances for success by managing their own behavior and attitudes. Employees watch their managers and leaders carefully and respond to the cues they perceive regarding appropriate behavior.

If you are a new manager, be respectful of the formal and informal rules of the organization or team. Change often comes slowly, and you should learn as much as possible about your new team before trying to change it. You also need to model the behaviors and attitudes you want to see in your staff and realistically evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses. Understanding what you do well and not so well is important in building confidence and in strengthening areas that need improvement.

Further resources
For more information on the importance of a manager’s behavior and attitudes on staff morale and performance, read The New Supervisor’s Survival Manual by William A. Salmon (1999). For a different approach to the issue of manager-staff relations, take a look at When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses: How to Survive in a Crazy and Dysfunctional Workplace by William Lundin, Ph.D. and Kathleen Lundin (1998). This book is overly fatalistic about the general inability of managers to supervise staff well. But it does highlight the frustrations staff can have with their managers and can help sensitize new managers to the importance of prioritizing good relations with staff.

New manager questions

Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.