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Are You a Self-Determined Manager?

10 Changes You Might Need to Make Right Now

The best managers intentionally create an environment where employees thrive and great work gets done. To become what David Deacon calls “self-determined,” you must make a choice every day and never, ever let up.

“Am I a great manager?” This is an incredibly tough question to answer. A manager’s job is to get things done by marshalling the efforts of others—and most of us have blind spots that keep us from seeing how we impact those others. But in all honesty, the answer is probably no, says David Deacon. Great managers are self-determined managers, and self-determined managers are extremely rare.


“Being a great manager—the kind who creates a high-performing company—is exceptionally difficult,” says Deacon, author of “The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers.” “You can never rest. You can never let things slide. You can never waste an opportunity. You are responsible for creating an environment in which people can achieve and grow in ways they did not even imagine—and that’s a job that’s never finished.”


Sounds exhausting, yes? But if you don’t do the hard work of becoming a self-determined manager, a lot of major things can go off the rails. Bad managers create environments where there’s little openness or honesty…or where everyone curries favor rather than focusing on performance…or where people deflect blame onto others (etcetera).


“Employees do these things to try to cope with the environment you, the manager, have created,” says Deacon. “But the flip side is that when you become a better manager—a self-determined one—you’ll see dramatic changes in their behavior and performance.”


Being a self-determined manager is not so much about mastering a vast array of technical skills, it’s less about task and more about attitude. It’s about creating environments of overachievement where people thrive and great work gets done (see the sidebar on page XX).


Deacon says the ideas in his manifesto are for managers at every level, from the CEO to the first-time leader. Regardless of your level or the scale of your impact, you will get better outcomes when you strive to be a self-determined manager. If you want to be among their number, here are 10 changes you may need to make right now:


Set aside time to reflect on your own agenda. “This is a biggie,” says Deacon. “It’s really easy to lose sight of how (and if) your current situation fits with your overall aims. If you don’t have a clear sense of what your purpose is, why you’re doing what you do and how it fits with your life, you cannot hope to make consistently good decisions for yourself and others. You’ll just be condemned to react to your circumstances.”


Choose, deliberately and actively, the type of environment you want to create. As a manager, it’s your job to decide the kind of environment that the team will experience—for better or worse. Think of the best teams you’ve worked on. What was the prevailing atmosphere? How did the team members work together, how were problems solved, issues resolved? At the heart of all that will have been a manager who set the tone and created the atmosphere.


“This environment isn’t something you can just will into being,” says Deacon. “It’s a process. But every process begins with a decision, and making that decision now is the step that all other improvements this year will flow from.”


Be more restless. Each week ask yourself and your team: “What can we do better?” The best managers have impatience (if something is worth doing, why wait?), an instinct for continuous improvement (good enough is never good enough), and a lingering sense of constructive dissatisfaction (how can we do this better next time?). They set for themselves and others very high standards of performance and conduct.


“This demanding impatience for ever-greater impact and ever-higher standards can make self-determined managers very difficult to work for,” admits Deacon. “Just be sure to always balance the high expectations with encouragement and a positive approach.”


Start treating employees like adults. Work is not school. Adults do their best work when they are treated as adults. Therefore, great managers don’t bully, shout, patronize, belittle, play favorites, name-call, behave aggressively or condescend. To generate trust and respect, you must create an environment where adults can do great things.


“Life is a little short for bad relationships and miserable interactions,” Deacon says. “Make sure you are helping create harmonious environments around you.”


Curb any tendencies toward self-serving behavior. Avoid the urge to take the glory for victories or shirk responsibility for failure. When you do this, you create an environment where people quickly learn not to volunteer, to not trust the intentions of their leader and to be busy on work or projects away from the team where there will be some recognition or reward for their efforts. If you feel the need to take credit or protect yourself at the expense of your team, remind yourself that it’s all about them, not about you. Your ego, fears and ambitions are not relevant to your team, so keep them to yourself.


Start letting people know when they do great work. (This creates confidence.) The best managers make it clear to their people that they have confidence in their abilities and in their potential to make a big contribution to the team’s success. They do two things. First, they recognize when someone does something well, and they acknowledge this as a good thing. Second, they express confidence in the person (so long as they truly believe it).


The message is, “I saw you do something really good today, and I know you will continue to do great things going forward.” This is an incredibly powerful combination.


Learn something new. Take a class, master a new skill, even take up a new hobby outside work. The best managers are interested, curious, open and alert. They are forever seeking knowledge. This extends far beyond their professional work and reflects their interests, passions, pastimes and preoccupations. First, thinking “widely” opens possibilities by helping you foster connections, recognize new opportunities and find better ways to do things. Second, broad knowledge and curiosity make you adaptable; a key part of career success is about applying what you have learned in new situations.


“To be the best manager you can be, it’s important to never stop learning,” says Deacon. “Keep cultivating interests outside of your work skills. Maybe you want to take up woodworking, learn a new language or get a weekend gig working as a DJ. Stretch your horizons and see how your expanded mind benefits your career.”


Master the art of friendly, informal, light interaction. While you don’t need to make everyone your friend, it’s important to eschew formality and standoffishness at work. Be gentle and kind with others as well as yourself. Work on creating positive interactions, where people come away feeling good, feeling they have some standing, that they can be themselves to a large extent, and that they are meeting with a good member of the human race.


Learn to like the people you work with (yes, even the unlikeable ones).
It’s crucial that you enjoy and appreciate the people you work with. If you deal with someone who is unlikeable, find something to appreciate in their person. Here’s why: First, it changes the nature of all interactions and maximizes the chance that you’ll be successful. You get a less cooperative and less engaged relationship with someone you do not like. Second, it furthers the chance that your team members will overlook your unlikeable qualities and focus on your best traits as well. Finally, everyone responds well to being treated well.


Figure out why the work of the team matters and articulate this to them. Without this sense of purpose, it’s hard for people to make greater effort, direct their energies and self-correct. Further, they will struggle to relate their actions to their employer’s performance, substituting instead other purposes, such as pleasing their boss or doing only work that interests them.


Striving to be a self-determined manager is incredibly hard work, but the payoffs are immense, says Deacon. Not only do you get to witness personal breakthroughs and join in team celebrations, you get to watch company performance escalate over time.


“The leverage of having direct reports multiplies your impact in your company, creates outcomes—good or bad—that magnify your work, and makes you responsible for success, which is much greater than most people realize or notice,” says Deacon. “This is a big responsibility, indeed—for others, for yourself and for the business.


“Managing others is not for the faint-hearted,” he concludes. “Doing it well is a conscious and tough choice you need to make every day. But I can’t think of a better way to spend your time.”


Eight Unwritten Rules Self-Determined Managers Live By

At the heart of the job of managing people is the imperative—and opportunity—to create the environment within which the team does their work. The best managers know that the informal rules around how people should work make a substantial difference to what people do and what they pay attention to, and they seek to shape that in a way that maximizes success.


Here, excerpted from David Deacon’s book, “The Self-Determined Manager,” are eight things the best managers know and consistently do.

Great managers understand that shaping the environment is their job.
Great managers are clear about the impact they have on the team environment. They recognize this is not accidental, that team culture is not random. They understand that it’s their job to create the environment for the team, and they can choose the type of environment they create.


They understand the power of amplification—it’s in the structure of the job. By virtue of being a manager, your words and actions are amplified. Every pronouncement you make may be repeated, every action emulated and every expectation reflected in the work of your team.


They deliberately choose the environment they hope to create.
This process is active and deliberate. Different managers choose different themes for the environment they create. Deacon’s checklist for the best kind of environment to create is as follows:


Positive. Help the team keep a positive view on what they are doing and why.


Purposeful. Know what it is all for; this makes the work and effort worthwhile.


Ambitious. Have something to work for and toward.


Supportive. Create a supportive environment.


Professional. Help the team do the best possible job, in the right way.


Honest. Be honest with each other about what’s good and bad, what’s working and what isn’t.


Grown-up. Avoid bullying, inappropriate aggression, shouting, patronizing, condescending, game-playing, name-calling, belittling and playing favorites.


They create environments that get the best from people. The best managers are gifted at creating for their people a sense of self-confidence and accomplishment that gives them a platform, and from this platform of self-belief and achievement comes more success and greater performance. The trick is that the manager is always looking for the next thing for their people, the next challenge or the new skill, which will move them ahead a little.


They catalyze greater achievement and performance from individuals than they realized they were capable of. They see that their people must be achieving and overachieving on their own in order to create greatness for the team, and they know that the way to get to this state is to build an environment where their people do better and do more than they expected or understood they could.


The self-determined manager offers a simple deal—personal and professional growth in return for great attitude and effort. The greatest managers want their people to achieve and do more because it builds their self-respect and career, ensures their employability and helps with their sense of satisfaction and mastery. Fundamentally, it is right to offer an employee the chance to learn more and achieve more as a result of working for you.


They are fueled by a passion to make other people successful (although there are some strings attached). The strings? You must expect individuals to live up to the opportunity that comes with working for a self-determined manager. Your people must be as self-motivated as you are, and they must take responsibility to perform, deliver, learn, grow and to have an impact and make a difference.


They create environments where “right” is clear. In a pressure-filled work environment, the best managers make choices about whether to push their people harder, or adapt the task to make it achievable or use shortcuts to achieve an all-important endpoint. When making these choices, they are consistent in application of their core values. They never stray from doing the right thing. This means honesty is never compromised, false promises are never made, people are never deliberately harmed, client trust is never abused, and customers are never misled.


“When you become a self-determined manager, everyone in the company benefits and the workplace becomes harmonious,” says Deacon. “Employees feel supported and incentivized to work hard, you feel satisfaction that you’re making a difference, and your higher-ups are delighted by your and your team’s efforts to help the company thrive.”

David Deacon is the author of “The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers.” He has been a human resources professional for over 30 years and passionate about how managers manage for almost as long. He has worked for a variety of the world’s leading companies, including Credit Suisse and MasterCard, and has lived and worked in the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia.


A thought leader in the fields of learning and development, talent management and leadership development, Deacon has influenced leaders and teams around the world and created better-managed companies as a result. Recognized by the Best Practice Institute as a “Best Organizational Practitioner” in 2014, he continues to drive impact through leading world-class talent management approaches in the companies where he works.


For more information, visit


“The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers” (Motivational Press, Inc., January 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62865-582-7, $19.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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