How to be a good manager: Be generous

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There are a lot of rules for first-time managers. For example, never hold a meeting without an agenda, because if you don’t know what you’re going to do there, then no one else will know what you’re doing, either. But the rule about agendas is a great example, because, like most rules for good management, it is about being kind.

Your job as a manager is to make sure your employees are growing and learning and enjoying their time at work. Bringing them to a meeting without an agenda is wasting their time, and that is disrespectful. A meeting without an agenda is like saying, “My time is so much more important than yours that instead of taking time to prepare, I’m going to figure out what we’re doing in real-time, and you will sit here and watch me.”

So the first rule, and probably the only rule of management, is to be respectful. A lot of questions I get from managers can be answered the same way: ask yourself if you are really being respectful.


Manager: My employees are totally unmotivated. What can I do?

Me: Do you give them work that respects their intelligence or is the work you give them crappy?

Manager: There’s nothing I can do. Someone has to do the low level work.

Me: People are much more motivated to do totally boring work (as a favor to you) if they feel respected by you in other ways. So give them good mentoring and pay attention to building their skills. In return, they will want to help you, even if it means sending 400 faxes.

I receive lots of email from people who have just become managers but who are still figuring out what their new role really means. One of my favorites comes from Kristy, in Canada:

I got promoted to being a manager last year. . . .. I have really struggled with trying to teach others, because coming from a background of life really being about myself, my own learning, and satisfying my own personal growth, making the switch to feeling like to have to now do that for others almost feels like you are giving something of yourself away. It has only been in the past few months that I have really come recognize that providing others with the opportunities that I have been given actually feels good. . . and that I am still growing, just in a different way.

Kristy admits what most people won’t: that management requires giving so much of yourself that it’s disconcerting. Most people who are new managers just sort of disappear. They pop out of their office from time to time to tell people they are doing stuff wrong, or to let people know about new goals or new procedures. But that is not managing. That is being a human memo. A piece of paper could be that kind of manager.

Real managing is about growth and caring. It’s about taking time to see what skills people need to develop to move in the direction they want to move, and then helping them get those skills. This means that you need to sit with the person and find out what matters to them. And then you need to sit with yourself and figure out how you can help the person. Most people don’t see management as listening and thinking, but that’s what it is. Because that’s what caring about someone looks like.

A good manager pops up all the time, just to check in. Not because you are micromanaging and you don’t trust anyone around you. But because you can’t know how to help people if you don’t know how they are doing. And take time to chat when things are going fine, because that’s when it’s clear that you’re just talking because you care as much about the person as the work they’re doing.

Once you get to the point where you are connecting with the people you manage, and you are helping them get what they want from their job, you are in a position to change the world. Really.

I had a big moment in my own career as a manager when I realized that I could change the world, in a small way, just by being more open-minded and generous to the people around me. I was a very young manager, and found myself interviewing people much older than I was. Seeing those people from the point of view of my mom, who was working for someone my age, made me change how I approached my job as a manager. And I know that people today are trying to do this as well, because this post is four years old, and it was one of the most popular on my blog last month.

All this reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a psychologist, he developed a theory to describe the path people take to address first their core needs, and then eventually to achieve their ultimate need for a life of self-actualization:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1. Physiological — food, water, sleep

2. Safety — security of body, health, resources

3. Love and belonging — family, friends, sexual intimacy

4. Esteem — self-confidence, respect of others, respect by others

5. Self-actualization — morality, creativity, problem solving

I think this pyramid applies to work as well. You start off just making sure you can get a job, and you figure out, eventually, how to use your job to make the world a better place.

Pseudo-Maslow Hierarchy of Job Needs

1. Physiological – Take care of keeping yourself fed and clothed.

2. Safety – Work on feeling secure that you can keep yourself employed, if something happens.

3. Love and belonging – Figure out how to get a job that respects your personal life.

4. Esteem — perform well at your job because you have the resources and the security to do so

5. Self-actualization — help other people reach their potential through creative and moral problem solving

So really, management is an opportunity to self-actualize. Some people will self-actualize by being artists, or writing code. Some people will self-actualize through management. Some, a combination.

But the point here is that being in management is an opportunity to grow spiritually and give back to the world in a way that is enormously fulfilling. If you allow it. You will need to set aside real time to make this happen. And you need to give generously. No big surprise there, though, because why else are we here, on this planet, except to give to each other?

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  1. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Also put everyone else first and do what helps them. You will easily take care of yourself without even trying because that is your prejudice so the concentration is on everyone else. The joy of knowing you were a mentor and manager to many people with you and that have moved away is a joy worth investing in by caring about those under your wings. I may soon get to report to someone I used to manage and I see that as a unique positive as well.

  2. Scott
    Scott says:

    The best manager I’ve had used the philosophy that his job was to put me in the best position possible to get my next job. He was successful as a manager if I was able to successfully move on. To him, that entailed frequent discussions about my career goals, giving guidance, and making sure I got the necessary exposure.

    This was all under the assumption that I would get my real work done. There were, of course, discussions on the day to day work, but it was mostly an implicit contract that I’d get my work done and he’d do everything he could to help further my career.

  3. david rees
    david rees says:

    I agree with your theory of management and yet I can hear the dissent: “a managers job is not to nurture people and make them happy, it is to get stuff DONE!”

    I think Markus Buckingham has really done a good job of casting a light on the good managers and helping people see the value of this management style.

    More companies are holding managers accountable for turnover because it is expensive and wasteful and as it turns out, people sometimes come for the company, but they leave because of their individual manager.

    It’s a bit outside of your idiom, but curious readers would do well to at lease look up the two talents that Buckingham identified in every top manager that the Gallup organization interviewed. (he calls them “Individualization” and “Maximizer”)

  4. Angie
    Angie says:

    I had a great manager whose operating principle was to do what she could to set up each individual on her team for success. She didn’t define “success” just in terms of getting the work done, but of being to exceed the expectations and really add value. Of course, that wasn’t always possible, but it often was. She also was mindful of her team’s role in the organization, and its potential to either contribute to or detract from the health of the organization as a whole. I think that’s also important.

  5. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    My last full time permanent position, I was there for 3 years before going back to contract-consulting. During that time, I had 6 managers. I reported to a different manager every 6 months.

  6. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    Was it Kristy or Andrew in Canada?

    * * * * * *

    Kristy. I fixed it. Thanks for the close reading – twice.


  7. GreatManagement
    GreatManagement says:

    Lots of good pointers here but the first rule, and probably the only rule of management, is to get things done and you have much more chance of succeeding if you are respectful.

    Persistence and integrity also come to mind.


  8. Amy
    Amy says:

    Great topic.

    I totally agree with the premise. Of course, every good premise has its particular challenges. I have an employee who has paranoid personality disorder. Events and situations that are neutral to others induce great anxiety in her. For instance, I once asked her, “Do you enjoy your work?” She became immediately defensive and ran to HR to roll her eyes at them about me, because I had totally missed the point of the manager/employee relationship. I am supposed to give her an assignment and then, after she completes it, give her another assignment.

    But I have kept trying. But sometimes, the most respectful thing I can do is just allow her to have her rigid world-view and just not push her to talk to me about job satisfaction.

    You are hitting the nail on the head about just chatting, though. A manager who just works to keep the lines of communication open will rarely have to ask about job satisfaction, because that information will just be part of the conversation naturally, even if you started out by talking about what you had for dinner the night before, or the weird nightmare that woke them up at 3 a.m.

  9. Charles
    Charles says:

    Great post Penelope!
    I don't know how many meetings I've wasted time in when there was no agenda or purpose. One particular memorable one (by a soon to be ex-manager) wasted the time of our CEO, CFO, CIO and numerous department heads. This "annual report" meeting was scheduled for two hours. In reality, it took fifteen seconds as all that really needed to be discussed was a routine query that would be emailed to a finance official. The conversation went as follows: "Would you like me to send it to you in Excel, like we did last year?" "Yep, anything else?" The organization's leadership was not happy with this inexperienced manager, let alone her employees who were treated as personal robots.

    We regularly discuss management styles and Maslow in our management and leadership classes. Here are a few additional observations about who you manage, how and on what level.

    1. Physiological – This is lowest level of management basically only used for those organizations where a body needs to do a task. The workers are motivates by threats. “Workers and people are bad” “constant direct supervision”

    A loading dock “manager” job I interviewed for fit this bill. The duties of the "manager" were “motivation” (as the operations manager put it”. More plainly the duties of the “manager” were restricted to making sure the Teamster dock workers worked every minute they were punched in and to write up any and all transgressions.) It is doubtful that any manager who operates under these conditions is in a position to help themselves or their employees grow. Luckily these jobs are becoming rare.

    2. Safety – Basic blue/pink collar jobs where employees are assigned specific tasks by the manager. Workers are still motivated by a punishment/reward system.

    3. Social: belonging – Most traditional Blue/Pink collar workers. Like direction, specific tasks, but also want to do the job with minimal supervision. Rewards and loyalty are important. Managers focus on motivating and counseling their employees and building them into team.

    4. Esteem – €“ Supervisory blue/pink collar level, white collar and basic gold collar employees who are interested in career advancement, self respect and intangible rewards. (Most of your readers are probably in this group.) Managers provide direction and support for functioning teams but do not involve themselves in routine operations. To do so will court disaster.

    5. Self-actualization – €“ Gold collar employees. Managers are there to provide overarching vision and organizational support and to negotiate with other departments on resource, scope and budgetary items. These employees are achievement oriented and will go elsewhere if their specific needs are not met. (This is not to assume they are disloyal or indiscriminately job hop, they are highly talented and have specific goals that need to be acknowledged.)

  10. sifi
    sifi says:

    Great post and consistent with the rest of what you have said on this subject.
    This is the way management has to be in order for people to flourish. I am a first line supervisor and in two days I am losing a direct report to a better paying job in another agency. She came to me troubled and disoriented a year and a half ago and now she is taking wing! I am happy and proud of myself because even when I did not feel like it I always put her well-being as a worker and person first, even when my own supervisor did not agree. I let her cross-train for an extended time with another manager whose work was a better fit for her and sent her to a lot of training.
    To digress for a second, I started working after grad school over 20 years ago. This was a time when it was common to compete like hell for positions. Our managers treated us like chattel, always telling us we were lucky to have jobs. It took me almost 5 years to realize I was being lied to and that I was really a stellar employee.
    Now that I am going on 50 I am so grateful that the culture, at least in this regard, has grown up a little.
    Thanks, Penelope, keep up the good work.

  11. Melissa Chang
    Melissa Chang says:

    This is one of those posts that I WANT to send to all the bad managers that I know, but instead sent to the good ones. That is the problem with management posts – it’s hard to get them in the hands of the people who need to read them!

    (But thanks, as always, for the insights!)

  12. Pete
    Pete says:

    Penelope, I’m a recent subscriber to your blog, and this is my first post. For the most part there’s been a lot of meat to your discussions, and this is certainly one of them.

    Respect, without a doubt, is an essential character trait for any good supervisor. While I respect your opinion that respect counts, and it absolutely does, I think it’s myopic to think respect is the be-all end-all of a good manager. Respect includes the empathy and sympathy that a good manager has to show for the team, and that focus on the team is essential for success. That being said, a good manager needs to not only be able lead their team respectfully, but also model for them the other traits of a good employee, like accountability, result-orientation, flexibility, initiative, and customer focus.

  13. tinyhands
    tinyhands says:

    As to the first two paragraphs, in reference to a meeting agenda, I suggest those struggling in this department seek out “Robert’s Rules of Order” for guidance.

    (I know the Gen Y’ers won’t believe that anything written in 1876 could POSSIBLY still be relevant, but much of the world actually worked pretty well before they came along and I believe it will continue to do so.)

  14. Miriam Salpeter
    Miriam Salpeter says:

    In my experience, supervisors who cared for and nurtured their employees were not always supported by THEIR managers. On the other hand, the hard-nosed, disrespectful, esteem smashing bosses earned kudos and promotions.

    If only all levels of management would buy in to the concept that workers work more productively and efficiently when they feel supported and encouraged…The fact is, you get more bees with honey! If it's worker bees you want, feed them what they like and enjoy the results!

  15. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I would say that the most powerful thing an employee can have is belief. Belief in their manager and in the company they work for. Respect, resources, and anything else doesn’t matter if you haven’t earned that. This belief must be earned by the manager. A person has to believe in what they are doing, no matter how menial. They must believe it serves the good of the whole and that it matters. Having this belief can be the difference between a job and a career.

  16. Glad
    Glad says:

    Great post. For the first time in my life, I finally have a manager who believes his job is to help me reach the next level of my career.

    I’ve suffered through incompetant, confused, self-serving managers for most of my career. It’s nice to finally end up with someone who knows his role, respects me and my team and works to improve our careers.

  17. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:


    Come on, I’m an X’er pushing 40 and I’ve never cracked RROO either.


  18. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    I think that managers SHOULD be more interested in the needs of employees, but the truth is that most managers are completely out of touch! They ask us to do impossible things for them and when we do it, they act like they expect it every time. The slogan is “Give ’em and inch and they take a mile.” Yet when it’s time to ask for medical they give us a health plan where we end up paying 80% of the bill in premiums. Penelope, can you start a list of companies that would actually like to treat employees right?

  19. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    The key challenge of being a manager is that you will never be liked at the time. The test of having been a good manager is that you will only find out many years later that much gratitude exists.

    My best ‘corporate’ boss was only appreciated when I started working for a bully – freedom versus micro-management, constructive feedback versus threats, creative inputs towards my job versus tantrums on targets, support for me in front of his bosses versus kicking me in front of everyone. I have let the former know many times in the last 11 years; I have made the latter the post of a very-widely read post on bullying that appeared on the Indian Economy blog.

    I was a first-time manager, at 24. I managed over 30 people, mostly at least 10-15 years older (matters, at least did then, in India). I led by example and gave praise, always in public and copious feedback, sometimes harshly but then always in private. I still get emails from my then-subordinates about how my belief in their capabilities exceeding their own has made them more self-aware as well as self-confident; some admitted they hated me then.

    Amongst the most popular couplets from The BhagavadGita (or you can read Christopher Isherwood’s interpretation “The Song of God”) is one that suggests that one should aim only for Karma (action) and not worry about its outcome.

    And it applies to all managers, at least, according to this post and good managers.

  20. Christine
    Christine says:

    I am a manager currently and work with an amazing director. I supervise a group of six and two contractors. Your post is a good reminder for me not to stay in my office and be the “human memo.”

  21. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    I would say that the ultimate job of a manager is to get things done … but it’s not to get things done today, it’s to get things done in the long-term. And you do that by being respectful to your people, helping them grow and develop, being someone they want to work for, etc. Ultimately all of that helps you get things done, which is what you’re there for. Fortunately, it’s a really nice side benefit that it happens to feel really good to be that kind of manager.

  22. Dan Oltersdorf
    Dan Oltersdorf says:

    Fantastic post! The great thing that I took from this is a reminder that no matter how much we discuss “best practices” or approaches to managing multiple generations, your post brings us back to the fact that we all have a set of basic needs, and THAT is the reason we discuss how to change our management styles to adapt to individuals, not just groups of generations.

    I do strongly believe that understanding generational trends in the workforce is absolutely critical, but needs to be balanced with the approach described here as the foundation.

    Thanks for the post!!!!

  23. Jason
    Jason says:

    Yay for Penelope Trunk. What a great post.

    I couldn’t agree more, and believe as a manager if you help people become their own best selves, you truly can change the world.

  24. Brad
    Brad says:

    Penelope –

    I believe 100% in what you are saying here in this post.

    In my experience, it's being personable and caring about employees that makes a manager great.

    In the recent past I met an acquaintance of my sister, Marshall O’Brien, who has his own Corporate Team Building company – C3 Teambuilding (check us out at ). I originally met with Marshall because I thought his take on team building was great, and I was hoping he could use some help that I could provide in my spare time. What I found out was that in addition to having an awesome concept, Marshall was an awesome boss and an all around great guy.

    What I learned is that Marshall is passionate about helping others achieve their dreams. Between business meetings, Marshall regularly makes a point to check in to see how things are in my personal life and help me figure out my path in life. In addition to being a part of a growing company, Marshall has helped me find the path to grow myself!

  25. Susan Kennedy
    Susan Kennedy says:

    I loved this post! Managing is about putting other people first, much like parenthood.

    I might add one suggestion– in asking people to do “low level ” work, a manager may want to start by explaining the whole picture or why this menial task is required. Not only do you get buy in, but it is also a aign of respect.

  26. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    This post really resonates with me. I have a very kind boss. He’s brilliant and I am not so sometimes he can get frustrated with me. But for some reason he seems to think I’m smart and he lets me know it all the time. And, frankly, I’d do anything for him.

    I’ve had bosses in the past that were so cruel that I often wonder how they were able to convince anyone to give them a job. And they usually either got themselves fired for doing something extremely demeaning to someone – or failed because they were such dicks no one would really do more than the bare minimum on their behalf.

    So what I’ve learned over the past year from working for my current boss is that 1) confident, smart people are not afraid to acknowledge that other people could also be smart (regardless of any demographic factor like age, gender, race, etc.) and 2) people appreciate it when you are kind (which is not the same is “nice” – think about it this way: If you tell someone they have a booger stuck to the outside of their nose, it may not be nice, but it is kind because they are keeping you from truly embarrasing yourself.)

  27. Michele
    Michele says:

    Excellent, excellent post! This is exactly what managers need to understand. Thank you so much. I am forwarding on to all of my contacts.

  28. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    Great post – I’m going to share it with our entire leadership team.

    I’ve found this all to be true about mentoring people and the reward you feel. It’s really magical. What other reason could we possibly have been put on Earth besides serving other people? What else could matter more?

    Management is a great mechanism for doing that while simultaneously taking care of your own needs and, potentially, being part of a large project/outcome that may be making the world a better place in and of itself. The opportunities to do good and be rewarded for it are abundant in management.

  29. Chris
    Chris says:

    Excellent! I am not a manager but I am often in a leadership role and have seen the benefits of this approach (though I was not doing it conciously). Thanks for sharing!

  30. Scott
    Scott says:

    Manager’s job is the resposibilities to others, employer AND employees.

    I am in the situation where, dispite my hard work, reciving several certifications, as well as getting a Graduate Degree am given the lowest of the low tasks. As a result I hold all my ideas of improvement and am looking elsewhere for employment. If they don’t value me then they don’t deserve me!

  31. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    dear pt , I appreciate your writing very much and hope to see more on the topic of managing . If you ever come to israel i hope you will do some public speaking. Best wishes dawn

  32. Rcket
    Rcket says:

    This is why I read this blog, everyday.

    No-one teaches new managers this.

    I had to figure it out for myself. Now fortunately, as an ENFJ, that came easy to me. But for so many others it’s extremely difficult.

    That’s because it’s counter-intuitive. I mean if you have employees you just tell them what to do and they just do it, right? :)

    You see some of that attitude in some of the earlier posts: “wait, we’re here to get stuff done. Doesn’t this touchy/feely stuff just get in the say of that?”

    Well to put a point on it, as others have already to some extent: THIS IS HOW YOU GET STUFF DONE.

    Nice Penelope.

  33. Sharon Fluids
    Sharon Fluids says:

    Would the traits of a good, “generous” manager include blogging by-name about reports’ personal lives and on-the-job abilities and performance?

  34. Chris Bauman
    Chris Bauman says:

    I think there were a few comments that highlighted the concept fo buyin….Once staff are heading in the same direction as management it then simply becomes a time management, delegation and as you alluded to – the human side of management.
    Great Post.

  35. Steve Errey
    Steve Errey says:

    Spot on Penelope.

    A manager is someone who has a massive input into an individuals’ performance, growth, prospects and confidence – and the foundation of that has to be respect.

    That goes both ways – the manager needs to respect their team and colleagues, and they need to respect the manager. Too many new managers think that they win respect by showing off their knowledge and technical competence, whereas the real key is to ask them about their knowledge and ideas.

    When I’m freelancing as a manager I go into an organisation with the principle that I’m working for the team, not that the team is working for me. That’s because my job is to create an environment where each member of the team can do great work, and I need to work for them team to make sure that happens.

  36. Dale
    Dale says:


    Jack Welch thought he was being kind by firing poor performers, but to those fired, he wasn’t.

    Management is not a popularity contest.
    This post could be misconstrued as saying it is, but in reality, it doesn’t say that at all!
    Fairness, being kind, and by implication working to improve the conditions faced by one’s subordinates, are basic tenets of most organized religions, and all good playground interaction:) Even higher order mammals like chimps recognize the importance of simple acts of kindness, sharing, and cooperation, in fostering good relations. So why don’t we always do it? I guess the answer lies in the baggage we accumulate and carry around with us, and in the interpretation of our behavior – both by ourselves, and conversely, by others.
    Everything comes down to perspective. And where a manager’s motivations, actions and intentions are concerned, how intended acts of “kindness” are defined is subject to the actions and mode of delivery of the manager, and to the interpretation of the recipient – think Jack Welch again.

    I guess as the saying goes, “Nice people are nice… until they’re not.” And the “not” could be all in your head – or not.
    Just my two cents worth.

  37. Buddy
    Buddy says:

    Great post. I spent 10 years in organizations where we managers understood that. Since that time, not so lucky. I’d love to send this to everyone in my department. Helping someone to be better, and possibly grow to do your job, does not weaken your own position.

  38. Todd Rhoad
    Todd Rhoad says:

    These are great rules for managers. However, considering the Global CEO Study from IBM, it’s likely that managers will find doing their job more and more difficult to do because CEOs are projecting considerable change in the future. A key finding from the survey was that more and more CEOs don’t know how to manage this change.

    I think these results imply that managers will spend more time figuring out how to structure the company, rather than how to manage their people.

    Todd Rhoad

  39. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    What a great post.
    I would love to hear what you think employees can do, particularly when starting a new position, to foster this kind of relationship with their managers.

  40. Novel
    Novel says:

    There is a lot of truth in what you’ve said here. AS a manager, I’ve found that miserable employees produce miserable results.
    What’s forgotten about management is that it’s more about managing people than numbers. Not that numbers aren’t important, but that happy employees are more likely to stick around an gain experience and produce better results for a longer perio of time.
    I recommend “Three Signs of a Miserable Job” by Patrick Lencioni.

  41. cindy
    cindy says:

    I so relate to everything that you said about respect! A respected manager is one that geninely cares and listens to their team! Which produces some of the best workers and high in productivity!

  42. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    This is an awesome piece of word for people management.
    I wish I can share this to my current manager none the less, it seem it help me started to be a better manager than he is for the whole reason.

    Thank you for the great post, Penelope. U rox!

  43. Cindy Baker
    Cindy Baker says:

    My question is Iam training to be a managaer at a c- subway store. The managaer now is traing me but she corrects me in front of the emploees and the new DM.This makes me feel timadated in front of my employees. How can I get there respect? This is also hurting me in my abilty to learn all the paper work. How can I aproach the manager now to stop.

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