Haupz Blog

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Managers Have Boundaries, Too

2022-06-01 — Michael Haupt

Managers who seriously and deeply care about the people they're responsible for are also vulnerable in a special way. Let me explain.

(This is the result of some thinking over time, inspired by observations made over time in various places. This thinking is now ready to be written down. It also applies to all direct report / manager relationships, regardless of level.)

It's my responsibility to create an environment where everybody reporting to me can feel safe and well. I care about every single person reporting to me, and that's extra hard because sometimes I have to give them some tough love or negative feedback or say "no" to something or hold them accountable or whatever. Being in a managerial role makes these supposedly normal things harder because there's a reporting line involved.

The tricky bit is that someone who cares can easily be misunderstood as being soft, and - hold tight! - it is easy for someone who cares to misunderstand themselves like that, and err on the side of being soft. It's easy to sometimes confuse caring with not pushing back when a direct report crosses a manager's personal boundaries. However, managers have those boundaries just like everyone else.

Direct reports who have a personality that makes them very outspoken and direct communicators (and, let's face it, gives them a tendency to be overly judgmental), tend to cross those boundaries, very likely without even noticing. It does hurt a manager when that happens. And then the manager's caring instinct kicks in, and instead of drawing a line that's not to cross, the manager curbs their self defence.

Here comes the key bit. Such caring managers, too, have a right to not tolerate when that line is crossed. And it has nothing to do with not caring when a manager expresses that. It's a personal boundary that gets violated, and, again, managers, too, don't have to tolerate that. They also have a right to be heard before being judged, so whenever someone comes to their manager with a pre-formed judgment, it is entirely OK to draw a line in clear terms and invite them to (1) give their manager feedback instead (i.e., share what they observe instead of what they conclude from their observations), and (2) ask about the manager's motivation to develop some empathy. (Recall, feedback better be a two-way street.)

A caring manager has a right to erect those boundaries, and to enforce them. Being a direct communicator does not imply the right to be reckless. The sheer existence of reporting lines and direct report / manager relationships is often abused by people who like to see everything as power dynamics, and frequently what they mean is that managers have to take every kind of abuse because they're supposedly in a power position. That is complete nonsense. Being a manager, erecting those boundaries, and enforcing them is not power dynamics, it's asking for basic human decency, which everyone deserves.

Tags: work