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The Manager and the Change Agent

Published: August 07, 2018

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I was in a meeting a couple weeks ago. A familiar dynamic played out:

Senior Manager (to Product Manager):

We want YOU to be happy Mark! What does Mark need to be successful? We’re totally dedicated to keeping you engaged. These problems you’re describing…I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. Can you be more specific?Product Manager (to Senior Leader):

I get that. I’m trying to address the root cause…a lack of role clarity, poor communication across teams, unclear product strategy, and we don’t really have a structured approach to continuous improvement. You keep asking us to “show courage”, but then when we do you micromanage it. I’m not sure you see how hard it is to function in this environment for everyone.Senior Manager (to Product Manager):

I see. But what do you need Mark? How can we help you? You’re a number one player here. I’m not sure what you want…Product Manager (privately to Me):

I need to disengage. This isn’t worth my time. I just want to extract myself. Trying to fix the underlying problem isn’t going anywhere. I should just mind my business.So here’s what’s happening. Traditional management views individuals as primarily self-serving, looking to get ahead, looking to make their personal mark, and concerned with their personal blockers. They view removing individual blockers (“what is your problem Mark”) as emblematic of good management.

Yet many of the change agents I know personally (and have spoken to… I speak to many) have different goals. They understand that “the problem” isn’t local to them. They care about:

  • Transparency, and “working through it” out in the open
  • Fairness
  • Boosting everyone’s craft
  • Psychological safety
  • Removing tension and incoherence
  • Advocating for the less vocal
  • Not stepping on other people’s toes
  • Not succeeding at the expense of others
  • Fixing the low hanging fruit
  • Advancement in skills/craft (and less rank/power)
  • Intrinsic rewards
  • Solving problems collaboratively and out in the open It is more collectivist and less individualistic. More systems, less individual. More meta and less tactical. There’s literally a translation problem when these two mindsets meet/clash. The manager doesn’t understand…it does not fit their mold (a mold that likely catapulted them to management, I might add).

My advice to change agents (as described above)…be crystal clear about what you stand for. Describe these things as needs (as in “I have a deep need to be working in a trusting environment, and to eliminate toxic behavior”). Delivered without clarity — and I’ve been there, trust me — and it will sound confusing.