The loneliness of management

I’ve been reflecting on the last year and a bit of working back in engineering management, and have a few posts that I’d like to share. These are things that would have helped me to hear when I was starting out for the first time, so I’m writing particularly for people thinking about becoming a manager. The first one is about friendships and support as a manager.

Returning to management was a change for me on a few fronts. Not only was I headed back to a role that I hadn’t been doing in this form for many years, but I was also employed again. As a consultant I’d become used to being a bit of an outsider, but as an employee I’d previously enjoyed being part of something; to have friends to go to the pub with or form gaming clans, some of whom had grown to be best friends even to this day. I was looking forward to getting some of that back.

As an individual contributor it’s often easy to build these bonds. As a manager the path is a bit harder to navigate.

Ensuring you have enough support

Returning to management after so long away, my biggest concern when I was starting was “can I still remember how to do this well?”. My focus was very much on others rather than myself — you’re dealing with people’s careers, that’s a big pressure, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.

After a while, that concern flipped a little bit. I still absolutely wanted to do the best for other people, but I’d had enough reinforcing feedback to know I was doing ok. After the level of challenge rose considerably I started to realise that to do my job well, I needed to consciously focus on making sure that I personally had enough support for particularly taxing times. This is often described through the metaphor of putting on your own oxygen mask first. Being a manager means that you’re often faced with non-stop problems to fix and people to support, which can be very draining!

Through my consultancy days I had a good group of friends who’re also in the industry, who I’d always share everything with. Except… some of them are Monzo investors. One of them works for a direct competitor. I found myself closing down, and limiting how much I shared about work or the situations I was spending my time thinking about.

When you’re feeling isolated, it can be particularly rubbish looking around you day-to-day and seeing other individual contributors having little groups, going on holiday together, and feeling somewhat othered and alone because of your position as a manager. Sure, your days can be absolutely non-stop with meetings, but there’s a real difference between being surrounded by people, and actually having support through meaningful relationships.

This feeling of isolation is a common trap that it’s easy to fall into, and I’m not the only one. (Marcy Sutton’s recent tweet and the subsequent replies prompted me to finish this post, which had been sat in draft form for months.)

Making friends as a manager is complicated

As a manager, you’ll likely spend a great deal of your time with the people you manage. You’ll learn about their hopes and fears, will support them grow and progress, and may help them through some tough times. Your job is to actively build a relationship, and so you may end up getting quite close because of that. Some of your reports may be folks that you have a lot in common with, find interesting and smart, and enjoy the company of. In some cases you can easily find yourself verging out of manager/managee relationship into friendship territory. Why’s that so bad?

Jessalyn Rose tweeted a thread about this a while back, and her perspective is one that I echo: whilst I think you can be all levels of friendly in a manager/managee relationship, I don’t believe you should be full on friends. Jessica’s thread gives some excellent reasons including power dynamics, potential for bias and discrimination, being able to give truly effective feedback, and dysfunctional teams/impact on others around you if it starts to go wrong.

There are lots of nuances here, of course. There are real differences in situation between managing existing friends and becoming closer with someone you manage, for example. Ultimately it’s down to you as to where you want to draw the line, but wherever this is I’d recommend being honest about it with your reports should it come up - explain what you’re thinking and why. Other people may feel differently about this topic, and may be confused or hurt about why you’re approaching the relationship outside of what they think is acceptable.

For this reason I’ve also had conversations where it’s paid to be explicit, for instance saying “putting my friend hat on…” can make it very clear when the dynamic is intended to be different (although the power imbalance will always be there in the background).

So what are your options?

If your closest professional relationships are out, where else do you turn?

Start by thinking about what you need. There’s a difference between friendship and professional support, for instance. Decide where your lines are, and try to identify the kind of gap that you have. The following are a combination that I find useful, but your situation may be different.

👩🏻‍💼 Your own manager

Hopefully you have a manager who you can be open with, and who’s able to help you with many of your work challenges. However, for the same reason that you shouldn’t be friends with your reports, the same applies to your manager. For me, this falls strictly into the professional support category.

👩🏼‍🦰 Peer support

When you’re as busy as managers tend to be, it can be really easy to end up neglecting your peers. By spending time with other managers who work perhaps in a different discipline, reporting line, or area of the business, you can share experiences or advice perhaps a bit more openly. For a while I hadn’t realised that some of my peers were going through some challenging times themselves, and we all would probably have benefitted from talking a lot more.

What I’ve found useful is either to set up a standing calendar invite with someone (even if it’s once every couple of months) or having dedicated slots in your calendar which are earmarked for peer time. It’s sometimes easy to deprioritise these kind of meetings, and giving myself pre-planned permission through dedicated, pre-allocated time helps me ensure it happens more regularly.

If you’re more keen on group settings, consider setting up a roundtable. As long as I’ve been at Monzo we’ve had manager roundables where we share openly, and these have been really valuable. Over time we’ve split these and I’ve backed out of the wider roundtable to give my own manager reports some space, participating in our ‘manager of managers’ roundtable instead.

One cautioner here though!

Even if you’re opening up to other managers (or engineers) who aren’t directly working with you, another interesting dimension to be mindful of is the potential for things to change. You may end up managing different people in the future… or they may manage you! At Monzo, I ended up managing both one person who I got friendly with during my onboarding, and another manager who I was getting friendly with. As our Collective has grown, I’m now also ultimately responsible for managers and engineers who previously were in a different part of the business.

This comes back to your own personal boundaries. You may therefore find that you’re drawing preemptive lines around potential friendship with some of the people you spend time with, even if there isn’t already a management relationship in place. So perhaps you’re more comfortable with getting your support from elsewhere…

👩🏽‍🏫 Having a coach or mentor

I’m still pretty new to having an external coach, but so far it’s been invaluable. Someone outside of your business, but within a professional and confidential capacity can listen, sympathise, empathise, and (most importantly!) help give you practical support for problems without judgement.

In a conversation with my coach (Lara Hogan) this week, we were talking through a problem and she said something along the lines of “I don’t care about those other factors, as your coach I just care about what this means for you.”. Sometimes this kind of intentionally tailored support can be a big boost!

In a professional coaching relationship you’re paying someone for their time, so you should also be able to offload all of your worries without feeling guilty in the same way that you may with others.

👩🏼‍🎤 External support groups

Lara has also written previously on the concept of forming your Manager Voltron when your own manager maybe isn’t working for you, but I think this is great advice in general, particularly in terms of building a diverse set of people that may be able to offer different opinions, advice, or challenge types.

You could form this from individuals, or another option you may want to consider is joining some kind of a professional support group. This could be everything from a group who meets up in person to have dinner and chat, through to a Slack group or group text chat. Key to this will be a shared understanding of what the boundaries are - do you need formal confidentiality agreements, for instance?

Think about whether you’d like to gather with people in similar industries or roles, but also consider the benefits of being able to speak to people in totally different situations and what you may be able to learn from them.

👱🏾‍♀️ Reforming older bonds

There can also be people from your professional past, where perhaps you always got on brilliantly but there was always some kind of management dynamic in play — maybe your boss or a report from a job years ago, or someone’s who’s moved into a different role at your company.

These people can be great sources of professional support and friendship, but some key things to think about include:

  • Are you being fair with your expectations? Is there something you want from this person (free coaching, professional connections and sponsorship), or are you interested in a true friendship? Note that this may not align with the other person’s expectations!
  • Don’t try to change the dynamic overnight — depending on your previous relationship there may be aspects that need to evolve over time. Make sure you still maintain professional boundaries where appropriate, such as not oversharing or breaking confidentiality from those previous times — this is likely to reflect poorly on you!
  • Again, talk about it! Including what happens if things one day change back and you end up back in a manager/managee relationship.

This is hard, but it’s important

Having the right support and friendship networks in place can not only make your work more enjoyable and fun, but it can mean the difference between struggling through tough times and having people who bring you through to the other side. It also provides great opportunities to learn, grow as a manager and leader, and hopefully share some of your experiences on to others to pay it forward.

(Thanks to Ivars Krutainis and Unsplash for the header photo!)