I manage someone who’s upset that his employees don’t give him praise and validation

A reader writes:

I’m an executive. One of my direct reports (a manager) is frustrated that his team doesn’t acknowledge his input/skills/expertise. It’s as though he wants his team to give him positive feedback and validation.

My feeling is that it’s very unlikely to happen. Even great managers wouldn’t hear their team say “thanks for the great job you do managing me.”

I provide consistent positive, specific feedback on his work. I really feel like I’m missing something. I don’t understand his motivation, or how to help him see his expectations aren’t realistic.

I wrote back and asked, “What is he saying/doing exactly that has brought this complaint to your attention?”

We had an open discussion. I could see he was troubled by something, and it’s not the first time he’s raised it. He said things like:

* “My team are negative. I want them to focus on the positive work we’ve done.” (referring to when they suggest improvements)

* “I work up an idea, delegate the implementation, then they take the credit as though it was their own idea.”

* “They never say anything nice to me about my management, even though I constantly give them positive feedback, opportunities, etc.”

I reiterated that his team, and the organization, have a huge amount of respect for him and his skill set, and that as his line manager, I see all those things he feels his team miss. His team are high performing.

Yeah, this is weird — and some of this raises red flags about him as a manager.

It’s one thing to feel like the job of managing can be pretty thankless at times. It can be. Sometimes managers spend a lot of time, energy, and political capital doing things that benefit their staff, and people seem to take it as their due rather than something to appreciate — which can be understandably frustrating.

But that’s part of the job. The reward is supposed to be that by being a good manager, you and your team get more impressive results in the realm you’re responsible for, and you can then parlay those results into recognition from the management above you. It’s unrealistic, though, to expect your staff to provide that recognition for you. It’s nice if they do — but that’s a bonus, not something a manager should be upset if they don’t get.

It’s even more worrisome that when his employees suggest improvements, he thinks they’re being negative. He should want employees who think about how to improve things and are willing to speak up. And sure, that can go too far if it becomes disruptive and keeps people from focusing on bigger priorities, but that doesn’t sound like the case here. It sounds like he just wants them talking more about what they like, rather what they think could be done better … which is unrealistic. That’s just not how people work.

About his complaints that his team implements his ideas and then takes credit — that’s exactly what he should want to see. They’re taking credit because they feel ownership over their work (which is good) and they’re invested in it (also good) and because they did the work of implementing (which is usually much more intensive than coming up with the idea). Good managers give their team credit when things go well, and it’s troubling that he’s feeling territorial about that.

How is he as a manager generally? I’m skeptical that someone who thinks this way is managing really effectively, particularly given that he seems to resent his team for behaving normally. I’d take all of this as a flag to dig into how he’s actually managing people.

Also, how experienced of a manager is he? If he’s been managing for a while, what you’re seeing might be signs that he’s burned out on it. Or if he’s a newer manager, these may be signs that he needs serious coaching about what the job is and how he needs to approach the role.

If nothing else, though, it sounds like you need to give him a pretty blunt reality check. You’ve told him that people respect him and his skills. But instead of continuing to reassure him, I’d lay out the points above very explicitly. Tell him–  without sugarcoating — that he needs to welcome it when his staff suggests improvements. Tell him that part of being a manager is giving his team credit for work they implement. And tell him to stop looking to his team for feedback on his performance, because that’s going to come from above him and he can’t put that kind of pressure on his team; even if his expectations of them are unspoken, it’s pretty likely that they can sense how he feels.

You might even say directly, “You know, this is what the job is. You’re not going to get much thanks from your team most of the time, you need to let them take credit for work they do, and you need to encourage them to raise problems. If you’re looking for them to praise you or give you credit for the team’s work, you may never get that. To thrive in a management role, you have to be okay with those things. If you don’t think you can live reasonably happily with that reality, it might be that the role will never be a comfortable match.”

Right now I think you might be coddling him a bit; you’re focused on trying to make him feel better. Instead, focus on what he’s revealing about his mindset with these complaints and what’s really going on with his management, and get to the crux of it: Knowing that this is the job and it’s not likely to work the way he wishes it would, can he do it happily and effectively?

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