HR systems don’t work, they just make you worse

Apologies to The Verve

Are you a great tech manager? It’s that time of year again, and I have been exposed to a few articles that suggest there are a bunch of questions you can answer which can judge your performance as a manager. A lot of them are binary questions which elide the issue; in the real world is it’s a little more nuanced than that.

  • You are not a good tech manager if you spend your time writing code
  • You are not a good tech manager if you can’t directly influence the pay that your team get

The list goes on; and yet there are going to be some brilliant technical managers who will suffer from both those problems and more. The problem doesn’t lie with them; it lies with the way in which we measure. It isn’t a stretch of imagination to say that the HR systems in most companies: start-ups, SME or corporates are largely designed to measure only the things that are easy to measure. Things that are easy to measure aren’t always a good metric; it has the unfortunate side-effect of brushing a lot of other things under the carpet. By packaging everyone into a box you don’t have to think or empathise; you lose any understanding of the context; ticking those boxes means you can give yourself a pat on the back; life is certainly easier that way.

Friction and unhappiness with a company almost always comes when your values are mismatched against the company’s behaviour (not their declared values, but their day-to-day-behaviour). More often than not, HR systems declare themselves to be aligned with the company’s values, but don’t encourage those things in day-to-day behaviour. Has any company ever marked themselves as not performing business in an ethical and legal manner?

If you and your team are self-aware then measure yourself as a group: are you all aligned in purpose? do you trust each other? I have a core set of values and my team reflect those values; I judge myself against them and how they inform my performance as a manager; for me, they boil down to these statements.

  • I recognise I’m not a great manager, and I need to improve.
  • My job is to remove obstacles to doing great work.
  • I set expectations of what I can provide for my team, and they know that I have their back.
  • I make sure my team has the same information (aside from the secret squirrel confidential stuff etc.) that I have.
  • I try and do the right thing.

You can learn all the theory you like but until you’ve spent a couple of years being a barely adequate manager you’ll never be a good one.

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