Feeling “off”? How to be a good manager when you just don’t feel like being one

If you’re struggling to stay engaged as a leader lately, here are some leadership tips to pull you out of the slump.

Some days, being a good manager is more difficult than others.

You can’t focus. The day drags. You feel “off.”

The company isn’t doing as well as it used to. Or you received a scathing email from a client. Or you’re questioning the latest shift in the company’s direction.

Whatever the reason may be, there’s no shame in it. I’ve had these “off” days, myself — and so many other leaders have too. As companies go through highs and lows, and our mind and emotions ride the highs and lows along with it. In our online Watercooler community with almost 1,000 managers in Know Your Team, many folks shared this sentiment: We all “occasionally fall into slumps where being a good manager becomes more difficult.”

The question is: How do you handle “off” days, so you don’t stay discouraged as leader?

Here’s the advice that our Watercooler members gave to overcome the work doldrums:

Take a day or two off.

Perhaps this sounds like conventional advice when you’re feeling “off” — but it’s because it works. Go somewhere quiet and get away from anything that could remind you of work. No phone, no emails, no talk about work. Studies have shown how beneficial “unplugging” from technology is in particular to clear your head. Use this time to re-evaluate your priorities, the things that motivate you, and the sort of contributions you can make to your company and team.

Focus on the impact you have on the people you work with directly .

Even when you’re not particularly motivated by your company, think of the impact you can have on people’s lives and their careers. As a manager, your attitude and actions shape the everyday lives of your direct reports.

Revisit your team’s vision and purpose.

This should be the “why” behind your work, and re-evaluating it and can invigorate you. One member of The Watercooler did this by meeting with each member of his team to get their perspectives on the company’s direction. He listened to their feedback, looked at the market and their competitors, and reshaped the company’s vision accordingly. The adjustment in the team’s purpose gave him greater purpose to show up for work each day.

Dig into the work itself.

Sometimes you feel in “funk” at work is because you haven’t been able to be in a state of “flow.” Choose to get back to more hands-on work to make progress on something you love to work on. Before you were a manager, were you a programmer by trade? Roll-up your sleeves and write some code. Do you work at a public relations company and used to be the one interfacing with journalists all the time? Put together some traditional media pitches and pick up the phone. Reconnect with what you love to do most.

Switch up your role in the company.

You might be feeling “off” because you’re not in the right position in the company. One Watercooler member mentioned how he changed his role in to a “visionary” one (think CEO) rather than an “integrator” one (think COO). He then realized he was better suited — and qualified — for big-picture thinking than operating the business.

Consider going on a “work retreat.”

You could be missing some of the unstructured creative time you had prior to being a leadership position. To combat this, one Watercooler member will take little work retreats a few times a year where he can recharge his batteries. He normally spends about a week in an AirBnB in some random city all by himself. It’s like a vacation in the sense that he completely unplugs from his normal responsibilities, but instead he just works on design/programming.


Now, of course, these are not solutions to remedy serious core company issues. You may be feeling “off” for important reasons that you need to resolve: Your team culture is toxic or your work habits are unsustainable. Pay attention to the underlying reasons causing the “off” feeling.

Rather, these suggestions work well as a short-term boost, when you know it’s merely an “off” feeling, and you’d like to steady yourself.

If you’re stuck in a slump as a manager, you don’t have to stay in it.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The surest sign of a bad boss? You don’t listen.

You’re likely making these 4 leadership mistakes as a leader. Here’s what to do instead to become a better listener.

You’re not listening, as leader. You think you might be — but it’s highly likely that you’re not.

Think back to your last one-on-one meeting. Be honest: What percent of the time did you accidentally zone out during your direct report’s answers? Were you distracted by an impending meeting with an unhappy client? Were you trying to guess your direct report’s motives, and running through past one-on-ones with them in your head?

I don’t blame you, quite frankly. As leaders, we’re trained — and rewarded — to multi-task, rapidly context-switch, and think in parallel. We’ve got a firehouse of tasks, team dynamics, goals, customer requests that we’re juggling… How else are we supposed to weather the storm?

However, listening requires an opposite motion. Listening lives in silence. In stillness. You need to focus purely on the person you’re listening to. Not analyzing the response as they speak, not anticipating the next sentence, nor brainstorming ourselves what we’ll say next. Not thinking about the next meeting, the next phone call, or, hey, lunch is in 40 minutes.

The only way we’ll truly understand what the other person is trying to say is if we’re zoomed in on listening, in that moment.

When we do, listening becomes a powerful lever. A great listener gains knowledge that’s overlooked. They hear the tone of disappointment in an employee’s voice and discover that person is not happy on the team. They recognize that an employee has been having revealing conversations with a customer, and they finally understand why a customer isn’t satisfied with a particular part of the product. It’s knowledge only found in the nooks and crannies — you have to pay attention closely in order to spot it.

Not to mention, when you listen well, you show empathy and build trust in a way that’s more genuine than any office perk or team social event.

So how do you know if you’re a good listener — or a terrible one? Here are the 4 most common mistakes leaders make that reveal they’re not a good listener. Read on to see if you’ve been unintentionally committing any of them…

Mistake #1: You keep your phone on “just in case.”

Yes, emergencies do happen. But keeping your phone on during a meeting and having it buzz is enormously distracting for the other person. Countless of employees I’ve spoken to have mentioned how disrespectful it feels for their manager to have their phone go off — or worse, to be texting during the meeting. A recent study revealed that smartphones are distracting, even when we aren’t looking at them. So, what’s the solution? Just put it away for the meeting to be present as much as possible. If you do have to take a call or are expecting an important message, simply let the other person know so they’re aware, or reschedule the meeting.

Mistake #2: You assume people want your two cents — so you give it immediately.

As a leader, you’re often looked to as the expert. And, well, you are the expert most of the time. So it’s common to want to jump right in and help your team by providing the answers, or share how you’d attack a challenge. However, that eagerness to lend a hand can backfire. Rushing in with your opinion can crowd out any room for your team to share their opinion. I’ll always remember my interview with Laura Roeder, founder and CEO of MeetEdgar. One phrase Laura rigorously used with her team was: “Make this decision without me.” This gave her team the space to figure things out on their own, share their honest opinions with her — and helped her listen, not just tell.

Mistake #3: You only ask one question, before moving on to the next topic.

How many questions do you typically ask a direct report? Just one, then on to the next item? Or do you try to follow-up each topic with at least two, three, or more questions? Whether it’s during a one-on-one meeting, a Zoom video conference, or in a Slack message, the best managers frequently ask follow-up, clarifying questions — both about themselves, and their colleague. They ask, “What isn’t clear?” or “What am I not explaining enough?” Additionally, when their team members speak, they ask questions such as, “What do you need to make X happen?“ or “What can I take off your plate to help you do X?” The more clarifying questions you ask, the more listening you’ll do.

Mistake #4: You rarely ask yourself, “What’s my mood right now?”

We all have bad days. It’s inevitable. To make sure you can listen to someone well, it’s important to be aware of your current emotional state and to optimize for it. Not a morning person? Schedule your meetings in the afternoon. Just got out of some crazy traffic, or rushing to get all your tasks done before the weekend? Consider rescheduling — not avoiding — a tough conversation. The other person will be relieved that you asked if they don’t mind chatting with you once you’ve had time to take a breath.


If you’ve found yourself thinking, “Oh man, I’ve definitely done a few of those recently” — no need to get down on yourself. We all have been guilty of them, myself included. My hope is that in pointing them out, they no longer float under the radar. With awareness comes a small change in actions. We can all lift the veil that we’re all not as good listeners as we’d like to be. If we want to be better leaders, it starts with knowing what work we have to do 🙂


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Progress starts with ingredients

A lesson in creation, leadership, and life.


A good friend of mine told me how he went to a poetry workshop recently. My friend is not a poet. He’d actually never written a poem in his life. He was a nervous about attending the workshop.

Here’s what the instructor asked him to do.

She asked my friend to make a list. The first list he had to come up with were “objects you find beautiful.”

Then she asked him to come up with lists of other things:

  • 3–5 people you’re close to
  • Words that remind you of those 3–5 people
  • Words you use a lot
  • Words you like the sound of
  • Places that feel like home
  • Things other people want of you or expect of you
  • Songs from your early childhood

What he ended up writing in those lists were his “poetry ingredients.” She then gave him a poem someone else had written with a blank space every other stanza. This was the “recipe.”

He plugged his ingredients into the recipe…

And ta da! My friend had a poem.

It got me thinking how many things in my own life are this way. It all starts with a list of ingredients. Building, making, doing something new really isn’t much more complicated than that.

Take painting, for example. When I try to decide what to paint, I make a list of emotions: What have I been feeling strongly lately? I make lists of colors, shades, forms, places and people that inspire me. From these ingredients, the recipe begins to percolate in my head. And I begin painting.

For writing, before I attempt to hammer out any sentences, I make a list of things that feel stirring to me: What has my brain been hooked by lately? I write down recent situations I’ve encountered, enjoyable conversations I’ve had, things people have said that I’ve disagreed with, words or phrases that have puzzled me, concepts I’ve read in books that have intrigued me. From that list of ingredients, I begin to write.

Progress starts with a list. Progress starts with ingredients.

I wonder — if we slow our minds down for a second — how many things we find hard to start, make, and do that would become more straightforward and less stressful if we remembered this?

You’re on a project at work. You’re stuck. You don’t feel inspired. You don’t feel creative. But you remember that creation starts with ingredients. So you start listing out the ways the project could be better, things you’ve seen recently that have caught your attention, people you should go talk to to get new ideas. The list of ingredients snowballs, until you’ve caught fresh momentum to start plugging them into your recipe. You’re unstuck.

You’re a new manager on your team. You’re frustrated. Folks seem disengaged, blasé about the work they’re doing. But you recall that progress starts with a list of ingredients. So you start listing out what potential blockers people might have, reasons why people should be excited about the project, what ways you might be getting in the way with your own actions. Your list of ingredients stares you in the face: It’s clear what you need to act on. You’re no longer frustrated.

From a simple list of ingredients, you can make progress. You can become a better leader. You can create. You can write. You can paint.

Even if you’re not a poet, you can write a poem.

Start with the ingredients.






P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

From The Heart(beat): Some of my favorite advice from 4 leaders

I share a few of my favorite latest leadership tips from CEOs, founders, and executives featured in our Heartbeat interviews.

Every few weeks, I have the opportunity to sit down with CEOs, founders, and leaders who inspire me. I’m continually surprised by the lessons they share — as well as the humility and introspection required to share their stories and their struggles with me for The Heartbeat.

Here’s some of my favorite advice from our recent guests…

  • Daniel Houghton, CEO of Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide book publisher, took over as CEO when he was 24 years old. Yes, you read that right: 24 years old. This meant he had to learn on the job fast. To get up to speed and tackle the steep learning curb as a new leader, he said: “I do love to read and I read a lot of books. Also, if you hire the right people, you don’t have to know how to do everything, but you do need to be able to learn from those people. That, and a whole laundry list of mentors.”
  • Laura Roeder, founder and CEO of MeetEdgar, a social media scheduling tool with more than 7,000 customers. She bootstrapped her company to $4 million in annual recurring revenue in 2.5 years. The one thing Laura wished she had learned earlier in her career? “Really letting go and letting the people you work with have ownership and make decisions without you. I feel like for me that’s been the constant process of leadership that I’m still definitely working on and still learning.”
  • Dan Mall is the founder of SuperFriendly, a design collaborative with clients like Apple, ESPN and Time Magazine. He is also the CEO of SuperBooked, and the author of Pricing Design. Dan’s take on leaders: “They’re the ones leading the charge, but actually generals are the ones in the back. They need to have purview. They need to be able to see everything. They need to be able to support people. They need to be able to orchestrate.”
  • Amy Gallo, contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. As a prominent expert on workplace dynamics, Amy offers this advice: “I think I wish knew earlier the importance that co-workers as friends in your life, both from just making you feel supported and making work feel fun and exciting, but also from a performance perspective. These networks that we build, these genuine relationships we build, are incredibly important to our performance and how we get work done.”

Interested in hearing more from leaders and executives who inspire us? Don’t miss a single issue of our newsletter.


The 5 ways to improve your self-awareness as a leader

The most overlooked element of a successful leader is self-awareness. Here’s why and what you can do about it.

A few months ago, I asked Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark, what he wished he’d learned earlier as a leader. No, he didn’t mention learning a new business development hack, nor did he talk about the importance of hiring well. Rather, what Ben wishes he’d learned earlier was how to improve his self-awareness as a leader.

Self-awareness, really? After considering it for a moment, I caught myself nodding vigorously at his answer. How true!

In my head, I recalled all the moments I’ve personally lacked self-awareness as a leader: When I micromanaged someone yet had no idea, when I argued against a new idea because of my own bias… The list goes on. Each time, I’d shot myself in the foot.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: Self-awareness at work just might be the most underrated, overlooked element of a successful leader.

Here’s why…

Why self-awareness is crucial for leaders

Fundamentally, self-awareness is about understanding your own mental state. It’s knowing about yourself: When are you energized? When are you in a bad mood? Where are you strong in, and where are you weak? What are you tendencies, your biases, and your leanings toward? What might your blindspots be?

This self-knowledge is irreplaceable. Without self-awareness, you can’t make informed decisions. You don’t know if you’re getting in your own way — if a strong irrational personal bias or misguided mental model is shaping your view on things.

Self-awareness is also critical as a leader because it means that you can build healthier relationships with your employees. Ben himself admits how his lack of self-awareness kept him from resolving an employee conflict as well as he’d like. He recalls:

“I remember there was one point where I was trying to resolve a conflict between two employees, and I just was like my head was somewhere else, my head was just like ‘This is the last thing on my to-do list, I just need to get this done, and then I can hop on a plane and go see my family.’”

Lastly, self-awareness is important for your growth and personal development as a leader. You can’t improve as a leader if you don’t know what to improve in. You have to see the current state of yourself clearly if you want to make any progress in getting better as a leader.

With self-awareness being so important, what are the ways you can actually improve your self-awareness in leadership?

How to improve your self-awareness as a leader

Assume positive intent.

One thing that Ben tries to keep in mind to improve his self-awareness as a leader is to assume good faith. When you feel yourself getting defensive and are not in a good mental state to receive feedback, stop and recognize it. Understand that the source of your resistance to what the other person is saying may be your poor assumption of the other person’s intention. You think they’re out to get you, or have ulterior motives. So assuming positive intent is a first step to bringing a sense of self-awareness to the situation: You may not being hearing things for what they are because you’re misreading the other person’s intention.

Hold up a mirror to yourself and your decisions.

Self-awareness naturally includes assessing yourself for your own mental models, biases, strengths and shortcomings, and the gaps in your perception of reality. Something that Peter Drucker, the well-known management expert, has recommended is: “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” Warren Buffet, in fact, practices a version of this with his investment decisions. This active reflection process helps create a deeper understanding for yourself. And by reflecting on your decisions and the outcomes, you can reach a more objective understanding of what’s working for you as a leader, and what’s not.

It’s not all about you.

Self-awareness isn’t just about reflecting inward, and delving into what you’re personally feeling. You have to understand what’s going on with the other person, as well. How might what’s happening at home or something that a family member is struggling with be affecting her performance? Does this person have preferences and reactions drastically different from your own? Don’t assume that this person wants to be treated the way you want to be treated. Embracing this nuance that everyone is not like you is a cornerstone of self-awareness as a leader. It’s not all about you — you must seek out to understand others’ perspectives.

Ask your team the tough questions.

If you really want to become self-aware, there are few better ways to accomplish this than asking your team. This means asking questions that you may be even hesitant to know the answer to. For instance, try asking, “When’s the last time something I did or said frustrated you?” Or, ask, “When’s the last time you felt unsupported as a member of the team?” When you defer to them to shed light on your tendencies, not only will you get helpful information to give you greater self-awareness, but you show them a willingness to become better as a leader. That, in itself, helps strengthen your bond with the rest of your team. Not sure exactly what to ask your team? Try a few of these questions to uncover your leadership blindspots.

Find an accountability partner.

For Ben, the most effective way for him to develop greater self-awareness as a leader was to hire an executive coach. For Ben, this was helpful for two reasons: (1) It created an accountability partner for him, helping him put into the practice the things he wanted to improve, and (2) it forced him to have a time to reflect every week, causing him to set aside time to deliberately to become more self-aware. Without this third-party intervening to keep Ben actively focusing on his own self-awareness, he doubts he would have made the same progress he did as a leader. Now, I’m not saying you need to go out and hire an executive coach tomorrow. Rather, a third-party serving as an accountability partner could be a friend, mentor, spouse or anyone outside the company. You simply need a buddy to help make sure you’re walking the walk when it comes to becoming more self-aware.


I’m so grateful that Ben admitted that self-awareness was his greatest leadership lesson. It was the reminder I needed to double-down on my own personal self-awareness. Without self-awareness, we fly blind as leaders. Choosing to know ourselves is truly our first step to becoming a better leader.


Want to improve your management style? Screw the Golden Rule

Here’s why “Treat others the way you want to be treated” doesn’t work as an effective leadership strategy.

“Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”

This is The Golden Rule we all learned growing up. As a manager or CEO in a company, you’d think it would make sense to follow it too. Managers should treat their employees the way they’d like to be treated, right?

Not quite.

In a recent interview I did with David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the Creator of the popular web framework Ruby on Rails and Chief Technology Officer at Basecamp, he shared this insight: You shouldn’t treat other people the way you want to be treated because the other person isn’t you.

The other person has different preferences (beliefs, ideas, and experiences) and is going to react to a situation differently than you. You might think something is reasonable or fair, but that’s you thinking that, not the other person. You cannot assume that the way she would like to be treated is the same as the way you’d like to be treated.

David admits to being guilty of this as much as anyone, saying that when he does this, “I’m trying to be empathetic to my own mirror image, which is not actually a very good definition of empathy.”

In fact, it’s self-centered in many ways to assume that if you treat others the way you’d like to be treated, other people will like it too.

One of the most memorable examples for me of this is when I talked with another CEO a few months ago. He told me how his company had implemented an unlimited vacation policy recently. In theory, he thought it was going to work great. It’s what he had always wanted when he’d worked at other companies himself — unlimited vacation, what could be better?

But then something interesting at his company happened: No one in his company took vacation. Maybe a day or two off here and there, but people took less vacation with the unlimited vacation policy than they had in years before.

I was a little shocked when he first told me this. What went wrong? The CEO learned is that none of the employees wanted to be seen as “the slacker” or “letting the team down.” Everyone else was afraid of taking vacation, so no one went on one.

After realizing this, the CEO replaced the unlimited vacation policy with a requirement that people take at least two weeks off of paid vacation during a year. It’s not what he would have necessarily wanted, but that’s not the point. If you’re a great manager or leader, you shouldn’t be operating from the point-of-view of what you want, you should be operating from the point-of-view of what others want.

Instead of practicing The Golden Rule and assuming other people are just like you, what should you do?

The answer is deceptively simple. Ask.

Ask your employees what type of vacation policy they’d prefer or what work environment they’d like to be in. Here are some examples of things you can specifically ask:

  • How do you prefer I give you feedback? In-person or in writing?
  • When you are most productive in a day? During the morning or the afternoon? Or even at night?
  • How much social interaction is important to you? Should we plan more team-bonding outings or have more regular company lunches?
  • How often would you like to get together for one-on-ones? Once a week, once a month or once a quarter?
  • How would you like to recognized for your work? Do prefer verbal praise in front of others, or more privately? Are small gifts or tokens of appreciation a good way to signify gratitude?
  • How much direction or context do you like before kicking off a project? Do you need space to gather your thoughts initially, or do you like having a lot of suggestions from me upfront?

Don’t just assume their answers are the same as yours. Ask, listen, and then act accordingly. The Golden Rule need not apply.