I’m just gonna… stand over here, then? On contributing as a manager

One of the interesting changes in the transition from an individual contributor to manager happened in the way I perceive my own productivity. Even when switching jobs before, I never felt such a stark difference, because whether I was managing projects, or doing batch releases, or any of the other tasks I had, it was still clear that a (larger or smaller) piece of progress would be created by me. Things got a bit less straightforward when other team members, a project team or people from the shopfloor were involved, but it was still my job to ensure things get done, even if I wasn’t doing them myself. At the end of the day, I could point to a piece of progress (however small) and say, I did that!

Now, as a manager, things are quite a bit different. The first time I noticed something had changed, I was discussing a new and complicated project with my somewhat newly established team. I gave them the frame of the project, we discussed the steps to be done, and some base condiditions. Once everything was clear, and because they are a motivated and enthusiastic bunch (seriously, they are so great), they quickly divvied up the individual steps between them. While I listened to them discuss the details of their tasks and how they would interact to work on them (without me, of course), I was thinking, wait, shouldn’t I be doing something as well? I asked them whether they wanted me to help out in any way, but the answer was a resounding “nah, we got it”.

Ouch. What do you mean, you don’t need me? What am I supposed to do, then?

Now that I look back on it, I am a bit proud. It was one of the first instances of the team leaping to action together. I feel that the ability of teams to self-organize their work is a strong indicator of a healthy team culture, and they got there quite fast. But at the time, I felt like I was doing something wrong, like I was skirting my responsibilites, or maybe kind of failing a bit as an employee, even. I was not contributing directly, so how was I bringing value? Where is the piece of progress I brought to the table?

Then again, I am also still an individual contributor in other contexts, and in those contexts, I love it when the team lead is able to give a clear frame for my tasks and then step out and let me do my thing. I enjoy being a team member in contexts where I feel trusted. So, should it not be a sign of a manager doing a good job when the team doesn’t need them for certain periods of time? Even though I knew that this is the managing style I liked and aimed to implement myself, it was still a struggle the first few times to overcome the feeling of not doing enough. I most certainly have a lot more empathy for micromanagers now – at least they get to know exactly how the work got done.

I do not want to be a micromanager though, and although I do still have those moments where I feel a bit sidelined, I understand now that this is the feeling I need to aim for. In those moments, when I can step back and let my team get on with their work, I did what I think a manager needs to do – give the team everything they need to do their job, and then get out of the way.