Flexing Your Management Style

Alessandro Bahgat

Senior Engineering Manager at Google



Many first-time managers will settle in their roles, still exploring their management style. Many will commit to treat everyone the same and provide the same amount of support, direction, and feedback to everyone. While that may seem like the fairest thing to do, it is hardly the most effective one since different people have different needs.

At one moment in my career, I was leading a team -- in a rapid growth phase -- where most people were more junior compared to the rest of the company. A number of more senior people were later added, but the ratio was still favoring more junior engineers. It was difficult to provide the level of support most people needed since seniors were oversubscribed with questions. I was troubled by adjusting my management style to successfully manage a fast-growing team of juniors and get them up to speed quickly.

Actions taken

Even as a first-time manager, I could tell that more experienced people would need less guidance and hand-holding and should be allowed to have more autonomy. At the same time, less experienced people would benefit more if they would be instructed in the greatest detail in how things worked and provided with extensive support. Not surprisingly, most juniors may find micromanaging neither hindering nor negative in its essence. Being able to recognize and assess where people were with respect to their expertise and level of confidence was a skill all first-time managers should acquire quickly.

When someone is not performing up to the standard, managers are inclined to adjust their level of involvement. The questions I was asking myself were, “Did someone know how to do something,” “Were they motivated,” “Were they set up to succeed in their role,” or “Did they need more guidance.” I was rather straightforward, inquiring if they had enough understanding that would allow them to solve a certain problem. I would encourage first-time managers to be open upfront and tell a person that they would be directive and give some more input on how to do the work. If the issue persisted, it would be either motivation or something else that deserves a whole different approach.

On the flip side, I had to be directive with many highly autonomous high-performers when assigning them a new task they have never done before. If the problem was high-stakes and risky, they shouldn’t be left alone and undirected. In this particular situation, they may benefit more from being told what and how to do something than left to their own to make a detrimental mistake. By being directive, I was not reverting to micromanaging them, but I was assessing what level of guidance would be required for changing demands and expectations. I was guided by a challenge, “What was the best way to support someone in a new task?”

Lessons learned

  • Set the expectations upfront. As a manager, you are responsible for making the assessments of what a person needs. After a while, you will be able to assess what someone needs with great accuracy, but nevertheless, you should confirm your assumptions with a person in question. You can always openly ask, “What would be the most effective way for me to support you in your role?”
  • Also, be clear about your expectations and actions. If you feel that someone is confident with some tasks, explain why you are stepping back. They should understand that it doesn’t mean you don’t want to stay involved, but that you trust them with those tasks and delegating them decisions. Different delegation strategies are available depending on their level of expertise.
  • Be mindful of yourself too. We are all somewhere in our careers, have managers, and feel more or less comfortable with certain tasks. Asking yourself what level of support you need is also useful to reflect on and better understand other people you are managing.

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Alessandro Bahgat

Senior Engineering Manager at Google

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