I hate manager READMEs
I got feisty on twitter today and wrote up some tweets on manager READMEs, a recent hot trend in management. Let’s break them down:
Well, what can I say, I’m sick of this trend. I’ve been a skeptic from day one, but what pushed me over the edge was watching one of my senior engineer friends react to this article on the concept. It mirrored the loathing I’ve heard from several senior engineers as well as the general negative reaction most managers in my trusted circle have about the concept. But we’ve got a lot of people trying to popularize the idea, so enough’s enough, and today I’m willing to be the critic to this well-intended exercise.
Look, fellow managers: there is no way to write these and not be self-serving. You are writing them presumably to shortcut problems that arise when people misunderstand your behavior or when they act in a way you don’t like or otherwise violate some expectations that you believe are within your rights to set. And hey, I’m a boss too, I get it. You want people to respond to your emails within a certain timeframe, fine, that’s (maybe) a reasonable expectation. If most of the manager READMEs were essentially descriptions of what behaviors you expect from your direct reports in the performance of their job, I might not mind so much. It’s a bit crass (sounds more appropriate for a manager of a factory floor than a manager of “knowledge workers”), but could be effective.
But then there’s this idea that you can build trust with this exercise, and you do that by being brutally honest about your own flaws, your values, and the behaviors they should expect from you. That is where I really take issue with this process.
First of all, be real: you probably do not know yourself as well as you think you know yourself. It’s the Dunning-Kruger of self-awareness. If you’ve gone through any deep coaching, self-awareness practice, or therapy, what you learn over time is how hard it is to be 100% honest about yourself and your motivations. If you’ve gone through very little of that, well, you are almost certainly in deep denial about your behaviors and how well they actually reflect your conscious beliefs. I know myself well enough to know that I might usually behave in alignment with certain personal values and expectations, but I will break that alignment at the worst possible times (you’re most likely to break with your best intentions in times of high stress).
What happens when you put out this declaration of vulnerability and earnestness and self-awareness and then you behave in such a way as to completely contradict the thing you claimed to be? You damage your credibility, hard. You damage the trust you might otherwise have built with your team. And you make it harder for people to call you on your hypocrisy, because they know that you don’t actually see yourself this way. It is incredibly difficult to tell someone that the thing they believe about themselves enough to publicly declare is, in fact, not true. It’s hard to tell your partner that, it’s hard to tell your friends that, and it’s basically impossible to tell your boss.
Yes, of course, you said that you want feedback, that you respond well to feedback. That does not actually change the fact that you have a huge power differential to the person who reports to you. I like to think that I respond well to feedback, and I ask for it from people throughout my tree. I don’t actually expect them to believe me about that, because I’ve had too many managers who claimed they wanted feedback and then reacted to my honest feedback by shutting me down, blaming me or others, or otherwise making it clear that maybe they do want some feedback, sometimes, but not this feedback, not at this time, not in this way.
If you want to build trust, you do that by showing up, talking to your team both individually and as a team, and behaving in an ethical, reliable manner. Over, and over, and over again. You don’t get it from writing a doc about how you deserve their trust.
One of the worst parts of these docs is the airing of your own perceived personality faults. I suck at niceties. I get heated sometimes in discussions. I don’t give praise very much. If you know you have foibles/quirks that you in fact want to change about yourself, do the work. Don’t put them out there for your team to praise you for the intention to do the work, just do it. And while you get to decide which of your foibles/quirks/challenges you will or will not change about yourself, as the manager, it is on you to make your team effective and that may in fact mean changing some things about yourself that you don’t want to change. Writing them down feels good, like you’ve been honest and vulnerable and no one can be surprised when you behave badly, after all you warned them! But it does not excuse these bad behaviors, and it certainly does not take the sting away when someone feels shut down by your rudeness or unhappy from a lack of positive feedback. If you must write a README, please skip this section. Keep your bad behaviors to yourself, and hold yourself accountable for their impact.
I believe many people who are doing this are really trying to do the right thing. I see your good intentions. But good intentions don’t just magically make bad ideas turn good. Everyone writing one of these is trying to make it easier for their teams to work for them. But the unintended consequences of these docs given the power differential between you and the people on your team are real and serious. Recognizing that you are human and have flaws and preferences is great! But trying to codify them into a README is folly because for everything you know about yourself there’s another thing you don’t know, and your documentation is out of date the minute you write it down. You’re not a computer.
You know where these kinds of docs are useful? As a coaching, therapy, or personal introspection exercise! I love doing stuff like this for myself. It’s great to spend time writing down things that you believe about yourself. But the thing is, to make that process really useful, you then need someone who helps you dig into which of the things you believe about yourself are really true, and which are stories you’re telling yourself. You need a person who is in a position to hold you accountable when you stray from those stated values, or who can help you refine them better as you learn more about yourself. And that person is not someone who reports to you. That person may only be yourself, or maybe it’s a coach, or a therapist. I wouldn’t even really recommend trying to make your own manager do this job, because it’s probably not something they’re trained to do.
So maybe I’ve convinced you, and maybe I haven’t. If none of my arguments so far have convinced you not to write these for the purpose of sharing with your team, perhaps my final words will:
You’re probably just wasting your time, because no one reads the docs anyway!
If you’d rather read something funny, check out Tim’s parody, “A User Guide from My 5-year-old”
Enjoy this post (or hate it)? You (still) might like my book, The Manager’s Path, available on Amazon and Safari Online!