Managers and Seagulls

Don't Be a Seagull

Bad managers and seagulls have a lot in common. Seagulls are bad. Nobody likes them, and you should avoid being one. I’ll explain why, but first let me add some context:

Before I was promoted into management, I led a small team as their technical lead. Nobody reported to me. I was just one of the guys. I was respected by the team due to my many years of experience and technical strengths. I was never seen as “The Man” by anyone, and I liked it that way. Our manager was not great, but he mostly left us alone because I ran the team well. The manager and I had a good relationship, and he trusted me to get the job done (whatever that job was), because that’s what I do. I guess in hindsight he managed through me.

Our team was close and we had fun, but we always got the job done. I can recall more than one occasion where we pulled all-nighters to deliver something we had committed to. We were given a lot of technical autonomy so long as we delivered on our promises.

When it became obvious that my manager (at the time) wasn’t really good at managing, he was moved elsewhere and I was put in his place. I wasn’t completely convinced that I would be good at managing, but I cared about my people and the work, so I was committed to giving it a real shot.

However, immediately after my promotion I noticed something that really bothered me. My team, who I was really close with before, suddenly stopped inviting me to lunch. They immediately got quiet when I walked in the room. They didn’t joke around nearly as much or look at me the same way. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t resentful in any way — I had just suddenly come to represent management. I had become The Man.

At first I fought it, trying to joke around and get them to relax around me. I was the same guy with the same concerns as before, just in a different role. But after I realized that I would have to have difficult conversations with some of them in the future (as is inevitable in any company), I knew things would never be the same. I couldn’t just be their friend. I needed to be their manager.

Everything Changes When You Become The Man

As I worked with the other teams and my time was spread thin, I spent less and less time with my original team. I still kept track of what they were doing on a technical level, but I was forced to defer to them (and trust them) more than ever before. They never let me down, but they were inexperienced and needed coaching from time to time.

I remember one time in particular when I overheard a discussion about a technical decision they were considering. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it was the wrong decision, and I worried about the technical debt they’d accumulate if they went down that road. I knew they’d regret it, and I wanted to save them the pain.

After listening to their conversation and being sure that they were about to make a poor decision, I walked up and nicely explained why that particular decision wasn’t wise, and what I would suggest they consider instead. It seemed like they understood and agreed, so I walked away. I knew there was a chance they may still make a different choice, but we had a culture of autonomy and ownership, so I left them to make the final decision.

In the end, they went with my suggestion, but I also overheard a quiet comment the next day that bothered me: “We got seagulled.” I immediately flashed back to vacations on the beach as a kid when we would bring loaves of bread for the seagulls to eat. I loved making a game out of how many seagulls I could attract, and loved watching them swoop down, grab the bread, and then fly away.

They were referring to me. In their eyes, I had swooped in and offered my opinion, then quickly flew away, leaving them with the pieces to be sorted out. Because of my role, they felt like they had to follow my suggestion. To me it was only a suggestion, but to them it was clear direction. I failed to consider the weight of my suggestion and make it clear that it was only that.

I was seen as an annoying seagull, swooping in with little context and dropping my opinions before leaving just as quickly. Ouch.

How To Avoid Becoming a Seagull

No Seagulls

As a manager, you have a right and a duty to keep an eye on the technical decisions being made by your teams and course-correct at times. You want to balance that with allowing people to fail at times, because they won’t learn nearly as well by being told to do something versus trying something and failing. Let them fail from time to time, but don’t let them become failures.

When course correction is necessary, try to do most of that work behind the scenes. Instead of walking up and telling the group why they’re wrong, talk to the team lead about the decision privately. Take the time to truly understand why they have arrived at a particular decision. It is entirely possible that you misunderstood something or don’t have all the facts.

Start by assuming that they do know what they’re doing, and ask questions to better understand the situation. Even if you are certain that they are making the wrong choice, and that this is something you can’t allow them to fail at, help them reach this conclusion by asking questions.

Asking questions (that you secretly know the answer to) in order to guide the conversation is much more powerful than simply handing someone the answer. Help them reach their own right conclusions.

You are also much more likely to be seen as a seagull if you aren’t seen as an expert in the area. This respect is earned, so its going to be much more difficult to question decisions unless you’ve spent the time to truly understand the problem area. If you swoop in and demand a change, and you are ultimately proven wrong, your credibility takes a massive hit. If you absolutely must throw your weight around for their own good, you had better make sure you are right.

Understand the Weight of Your Title

Even the innocent questions you ask can have unintended consequences. An innocent question like “Why did you do it this way?” can be interpreted as “Why did you do it this way, dummy?”, if you’re not careful. Asking whether a team had considered a different technology, for example, can imply that you expect them to use it, when you really were simply curious.

Be explicit about your intentions when you do have questions for the team. Something like “I’m just curious, because I haven’t looked into it myself, but have you considered using ______?” will go a long way toward clearly communicating expectations (or lack thereof) when asking questions. People will assume you know something they don’t, and will automatically try to read between the lines, when there may not actually be anything there.

If your team has respect for you, or even just respect for your role in the company, they could be making wrong decisions based on what they think you want. You must be deliberate in thinking through how your questions, comments, and suggestions may be interpreted, and go out of your way to make your intentions clear. If you don’t, they’ll try to guess what you want, and then be resentful of you for “implying” something that you never intended to.

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