I really enjoyed Camille Fournier’s post about the implications of exercising authority as a manager. In short, being told you screwed up by somebody who can fire you can lead to pretty serious anxiety. She nails it when she says this about her role has the head of engineering:

In fact, it is important that I’m seen as an inspirational figure to my team, someone they look up to and look forward to interacting with, and not vice-versa.

Her post also reminded me of a powerful lesson in management I learned awhile back. I heard a story about why a developer really didn’t like our head of engineering. One time, the executive was approving expense reports, noticed an odd $30 line item on this person’s expense report, and rejected it asking for an explanation. The oddness was easy to explain, and the expense report was ultimately approved, but the fact that the executive had rejected the report rather than giving this person the benefit of the doubt permanently set in their mind that the executive was a jerk.

I took a few things away from this incident. First, you can run into problems doing the right thing. The executive was being a good steward of the company’s money, and questioning the expense wasn’t wrong. Perception was the problem, as it so often is. Secondly, this person had very few interactions with the executive, and so there was no established expectation of trust that may have made this OK. If I’m only going to talk to someone a few times a year at most, I don’t want one of those interactions to be negative, especially with so little at stake.

The third was that people should be mindful of what’s expected of people with their job. Had the executive in question forwarded the expense report to accounting and had them send it back, feelings would not have been hurt. People expect accounting to carefully review expense reports. When an executive does it, it can seem petty or vindictive.

This is one of the toughest aspects of a manager’s job. You have limited chances to communicate with people, and what matters most is the outcome of those communications. Everything you do when managing people ideally helps to do their best work, whether it’s getting them the right keyboard, insuring that they’re fairly compensated, or giving them advice on how to get unblocked when they’re trying to solve a tough technical problem.

If it seems like I’m saying that as a manager, it’s important to be almost painfully deliberate in how you approach communicating, I am.