You are not your team’s umbrella

Two recent articles about engineering management stuck with me because they complement each other well to articulate a leadership philosophy I’ve held for a long time, but haven’t been able to put into words effectively.

First, in The Disappointment Frontier James Stanier expands on a controversial quote: “leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” He talks about how keeping teams in a “bubble of protection” (where you act as the “umbrella” for bad news) never ends well. And even though managing disappointment is a core leadership skill, it is typically overlooked when training new managers. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here is a key point:

Managing a team of any size—from a handful of people to a whole company—is a continual balance between trying to empower people to achieve what they want (interesting projects, plentiful opportunities, a plethora of pay increases and promotions) whilst navigating a conflicting reality that doesn’t always want to give it to them. As such, there is a lot of truth to the quote at the beginning of the article. Leadership is about disappointing people at a rate they can absorb. In fact, I think that I’ve likely spent far more time on mitigation of disappointment or on managing expectations than I have on being motivational in my management career.

James goes on to give some really good advice on how to manage disappointment well. The second article is Will Larson’s Unexpected Anti-Patterns for Engineering Leaders, in which he also discusses the dangers of the “umbrella” approach:

The more senior the teams I’ve worked with, the more I’ve come to believe that protecting your team from reality just makes things worse for them in the long term. Larson now tries to throw his team into the gory details much more quickly. “In the past, I used to think I was energizing my team by sparing them the details. But now it feels like lying to them,” he says. On a tactical level, Larson adjusted this habit by buffering less information. “That means even if it’s disappointing for folks, I’d rather them process news bit by bit, rather than deal with a huge ocean of mess all in one moment.”

Obviously you are not going to tell your team every little thing that happens in your day and your meetings. But the idea that we should shield our teams from the realities of an organization is fundamentally flawed and ultimately does a huge disservice to people. If we hide the context of our decisions or guidance we lose the trust of our team—and once that happens, all is lost. This approach also stunts growth. If we don’t prepare people for how organizations work, their eventual exposure to reality will be a huge shock and we would’ve lost out on the opportunity to coach them slowly over time.

I once received some performance review feedback that I am “too transparent” with my teams, and I need to dial that down a bit. I respectfully declined. I don’t know of any other way to be—both as a human and as a manager. I also firmly believe I would be a worse people manager if I adopted that feedback.

That said, transparency is a skill. One I’ve cultivated for many years, and will likely never fully master. How and when you say things matter, and it takes time to learn those nuances. The above articles give some great advice on how to start that journey with your teams. So I encourage you to give transparency a try. I think you’ll find that you immediately become partners with your team members, as opposed to just their “boss.” And you will make magic together once that happens.