Lead, Don’t Manage, Part 2

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
April 8, 2019

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I highlighted some of the important differences between a manager and a leader. I also described how, when managers manage employees, that often means they’re directing employees to do things the way they would do them. Such managers function as critics rather than coaches. The challenge is that, when managers are more critical than constructive, they diminish their employees.

In contrast, good leaders are multipliers who inspire their employees to execute better than even those employees thought possible. When employees execute well and are happy, their leaders are usually successful, too. I also discussed the importance of being an advocate who coaches employees rather than acting as a critical adversary.

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Now, in Part 2 of my series, I’ll discuss how effective leadership can help ensure that an organization’s employees feel inspired and deliver value. Leadership helps in many intangible ways—for example, helping an organization to scale its impact, thus making the organization more valuable and making work significantly more fun for everyone. As a UX leader, to inspire your employees and scale your impact, you must learn to let go of trying to control every outcome.

Empower Employees Rather Than Controlling Them

The very word manager connotes one who controls. We hear people in relationships say, “Stop trying to manage me.” Why? Independent people need their autonomy and do not want to be controlled. The need for autonomy is even greater among UX designers and researchers. UX professionals are highly motivated by their purpose, are passionate about and take great pride in their work, and have great creativity. When a manager tells such employees exactly what to do, it removes their agency. Prescriptive direction diminishes creativity and discourages problem-solving behaviors. But what is design other than creative problem solving? Of course, nobody intends this result. Managers who tell employees how to execute on a project have good intentions. However, as a UX leader, your goal is to guide and empower your employees, and that means giving up control over how they do their work.

UX professionals want to make the world better for users and to design products or services that instill pride in their organization. That desire makes a UX leader’s job easier. From one perspective, all a leader needs to do to excite and inspire UX designers and researchers is to tap into their sense of purpose. If UX managers convey the message that they distrust their employees so need to control how they do their work, what they deliver and, in some cases, even who they talk to, they destroy the emotional engagement of their best employees—the employees they need desperately to succeed. The best UX designers and researchers want to work for leaders who can help bring out their best and advocate for their growth. Employees who know they’re good at what they do want people to treat them as the skilled adults they are. They want to feel appreciated and receive guidance that shows them how to execute at an even higher level.

We inherently know that a manager who needs to control employees feels insecure in some way. Nobody wants to work for an insecure boss. We also know that, when a leader demonstrates trust and provides constructive guidance, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference. While it may seem counterintuitive that you need to give up control to get the best results, doing so is essential when working with the best UX researchers and designers.

Of course, UX leaders must review their employees’ work, conduct design reviews, and do continuous performance management. As a UX leader, you must ensure that designs meet your standards by setting clear guidelines, coaching employees on them, reminding employees where the bar is, and letting employees know you have faith in them.

UX leaders should trust, but validate and advocate for their employees’ work, not convey their distrust of them or function as their adversary. I remember, as an individual contributor, beginning a design project and having the boss tell my supervisor to review everything I did because, he said, “Remember how badly the last person screwed up and how that project went?” Needless to say, my supervisor reviewed my work in a state of panic, and I found the resulting stress way too taxing.

Why Does Emotional Support Matter?

You might have noticed that I have been implicitly talking about emotions: Feeling inspired by one’s boss is an emotional experience. So is feeling demotivated. I was startled when a boss once told me that emotions have no place at work. (Yeah, it was a guy.) But that belief misses the fundamental fact that our emotions drive us, even when we say they do not. While our employees might not overtly exhibit their emotions, that does not mean they don’t feel resentment toward a bad manager or experience the inspiration of working for a great leader. Emotions are at the core of who we are as human beings.

About fifteen years ago, the UX industry began talking about emotional design and using terms such as delight. We realized that we wanted to engage our users emotionally. Similarly, as UX leaders, we need to recognize the emotional drivers for an important part of our user base: our employees. What motivates a capable, intelligent designer or researcher? What creates greater engagement? On the other hand, what demotivates them? What creates resentment and might drive them to sabotage their manager’s goals—often subtly and invisibly?

On the other hand, our brains are wired to hear the negative. In fact, this is a key element of our success as a species. When someone tells you there’s a tiger in the vicinity of your village, you listen! Research has proven that, in both personal and work relationships, people need to hear four positive things for every negative thing. Otherwise, they’ll eventually disengage from a relationship. A manager might say that employees should “just suck it up.” But why should they? Employees want to enjoy their work and the people around them. Everyone wants to be treated with respect. If you don’t afford an employee the respect she feels she deserves, that negatively impacts her willingness to try harder, makes her feel resentment, and evokes a desire to find a workplace where she would feel uplifted. The best coaches—for example, Olympics coaches—don’t criticize. They offer constructive criticism, pat an athlete on the back, and say, “Okay, try it again. I know you can do it.” Management through punishment does not create positive results.

It is axiomatic that people live up or down to expectations. People might like to believe that other peoples’ beliefs about them don’t impact them, but nobody is superhuman. When a manager expects employees to fail, they do. This issue is deeply rooted in human emotion. In her famous book Guiding Principles for Life Beyond Victim Consciousness, Lynne Forrest says, when we believe something, we get behind it emotionally and try to prove what we believe to the world. If we believe someone is the best, we try to prove that they are. Moreover, we enroll others in believing the same thing, to support our belief. When we get others to agree with our perspective, we feel safer and more confident. In contrast, a manager who believes an employee is going to have problems works hard to prove himself right. It’s human nature. However, we can overcome this tendency through awareness and conscious behavior change. First, though, leaders must recognize the impact they have on their employees. Good UX leaders set goals and advocate for their employees. They provide positive guidance that helps their employees to achieve their goals.

When Do Leaders Need to Take Control?

Of course, there are some times when managers need to exert greater control over employees than at others—such as with hourly employees in low-skill roles. However, there is a fine line between criticism and coaching, or guidance. Criticism makes people feel as though they’ve done something wrong and need to correct it. When you tell people they’ve done something wrong, most of them feel shame. Shame does not result in their trying harder. It makes them feel inadequate. Employees either fight a manager who has made them feel inadequate or they might leave, but most won’t try harder.

Coaching, on the other hand, makes people feel as though the coach recognizes the good work they’ve done so far, understands their challenges, and is okay with their progress. A coach can help employees by guiding them and reminding them that they have it in them to succeed. These two styles of management feel very different to employees.

When managers micromanage, they are trying to help, but don’t get the behaviors they want. When leaders coach employees, they transition responsibility for success from themselves to their employees. When you give them the opportunity, most UX designers and researchers are willing to take responsibility for their success. When employees take complete responsibility from a place of dedication and enthusiasm, they are much more likely to do whatever it takes to succeed—including enrolling others to help them as necessary and getting creative in their problem solving.

Allow Employees to Take Risks

Many years ago, a group I led at Cisco felt deeply committed to addressing the need to introduce a consumer router, but management initially resisted. We talked with the business unit’s General Manager, saying, in effect, “Look, if you give us six people for six months, we’ll come back with a product that will increase revenue by billions of dollars. If we fail, you can fire us. But, if we succeed, you’ll have created a new market for the company.” The GM was a very good leader, and he gave us the support we needed to make it happen. And we did. We designed and introduced the first consumer router Cisco ever produced, and it generated tens of billions of dollars in revenue.

But it wasn’t really that easy. The GM, at first, seemed to think we were crazy, because he didn’t see our vision. He could have controlled us and told us to get back to our day jobs. Instead, he let us take complete responsibility, and we worked tirelessly to introduce this new product and change the way that behemoth of a company did business. By letting his employees run free and take risks, our GM gained significant credibility within the company.

I have also worked in companies where leaders were too afraid to take risks. In each case, these leaders’ organizations underperformed and, most of the time, the leaders were laid off.

Of course, leaders must set standards for work, set a vision and objectives, and evaluate employees against those goals. They must also inspire employees to pursue audacious goals. Sometimes, employees surprise everyone and achieve tremendous success. But, when employees take risks that present insurmountable challenges or have great ideas whose time has not yet come, as their leader, you still need to reward their efforts publicly and applaud them for their creativity and innovative thinking.

Provide Purpose to Your Employees

As UX professionals, we feel proud of our user-centered outlook—that we put our users first and design to support their needs. Here is a principle that UX leaders can follow: Understand thy user. Who are your users within the context of your company? UX leaders have two types of users: others in leadership—their boss and peers—and their employees. This context highlights an important role for the UX leader: Be an insulating layer, protecting UX designers and researchers—who are purpose-driven people—from unnecessary challenges, political machinations, and irrelevant goals. Remember, UX professionals enter their field to make a difference. They want to design and build products and services that make people’s lives better.

Executive leadership, on the other hand, wants to increase revenue and profit. Therefore, it is the UX leader’s responsibility to translate profits into purpose for the UX team. One example of a profit-based goal would be to increase revenue by $4 million. In contrast, an example of a purpose-based goal for a travel company would be to improve the way millions of consumers experience travel. As a UX leader, if I told my team that we need to design an experience that would improve the way millions of consumers experience travel and that, just incidentally, this would also increase monetization and make the executives happy, they could get excited about the purpose, knowing that their leader was providing the cover for them to do what they love.

Serve Your Employees

Whenever I speak with UX managers who disagree with the concept that they need to learn to let go of total control, I recommend that they ask themselves honestly why they want to be a leader. Is it to help employees become better at what they do and make a positive difference in their organization? Is it because they lack power in their current role so want more personal power? Or do they feel that they must become a manager to progress in their career?

The reason matters. The best leaders hire the smartest, most capable people and pave a path forward that enables them to succeed politically and operationally. This is servant leadership. Such leaders understand that, by paving the way to enable their employees’ success and by publicly praising them for great results, they create a virtuous cycle that uplifts them as well.

On the other hand, bad managers just want the title of manager because it makes them feel more powerful or gives them a greater sense of validation. Such managers not only hurt their employees, but hurt themselves as well. First, they make employees miserable by trying to exert power over them. As a result, employees sometimes respond in ways that make bad bosses miserable. Such power plays generate negative energy that prevents both these managers and their employees from thriving. In the worst case, employees working in such negative environments might do the minimum possible or even sabotage the bad manager’s initiatives. All managers should honestly reflect on their goals. If a manager’s goal is simply self-aggrandizement, that manager should not be in management—such managers diminish their organizations. Being a leader is not about you. It is about enabling your employees the freedom to succeed or fail and learn, with your helpful guidance.

The bottom line is that employees need to feel that their manager supports them and cares for their welfare. This is a basic human need. People spend a lot of time at work and need to feel good about what they’re doing. If they don’t, they’ll leave an organization. People are willing to earn less money for the opportunity to work within a workplace they enjoy. As a UX leader, you have the opportunity to create a work environment that your employees enjoy and where they feel empowered. In such an environment, employees can deliver results beyond their expectations and yours. When they do, this creates a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and success that helps you, your employees, and senior executives thrive!

When managers micromanage their employees, they are trying to control them, but fail to get the behaviors they’re seeking. When leaders coach, employees transition to taking responsibility for success on every initiative they take on. When you give them the opportunity, they’re willing to take responsibility for their success. When dedicated employees take complete responsibility for their goals, they are much more likely to do whatever it takes to succeed.

Being led by a servant leader means employees feel empowered and excited about taking full ownership for their role. Servant leaders generate constructive energy in their employees and foster greater creativity and dedication. Employees who feel supported and know they’re working toward a larger, shared purpose tend to spend their energy optimizing for the success of the group—as well as your success—not just for their own success.

Increase Your Scope of Influence

As you grow through leadership, you’ll learn to scale your impact. As an individual contributor, you might work on just one product. As a manager, you might have responsibility for five to ten employees, so your scope of influence expands across all their projects. Being a good leader means you enable each of your direct reports to deliver value. As you advance to senior manager or director within a large organization, your scope of influence might extend across perhaps 20 to 50 employees. At that point, you are leading others who manage employees directly. Once you get to the VP level, you might have hundreds of employees, depending on the size of the company. Your scope of influence scales commensurately. At that point, you may have three levels of employees—directors reporting to you, managers reporting to the directors, and individual contributors reporting to the managers. As you scale, it becomes impossible for you to tell everyone how to do their work, so as a manager, you should practice giving people autonomy, offering guidance as necessary.

Being a great leader who can coach managers to become great leaders in their own right gives you more time to focus on strategy. When you spend less time trying to control every aspect of what your employees do, you can get out of the weeds, stop focusing on tactical efforts, and instead, see the trees so you can focus on strategy.

In contrast, when managers feel the need to involve themselves in every detail of their employees’ activities and correct their employees at every turn, they cannot scale their influence. So they have little time to create a positive vision or inspire their employees. When managers prescribe exactly what their employees must do, those employees might abdicate responsibility, saying they just did what their manager told them to do, and rarely commit passionately to their manager’s vision or goals.

When managers micromanage their employees, those employees feel their manager doesn’t trust them or care about their ideas, so they are less likely to trust their managers or care about their goals, making the manager’s task more challenging. Everyone wants to be treated with respect. Without that, people stop caring.

Thus, as a UX leader, it’s your job to grow through the ranks—first, learning how to coach individuals, then leaders, and finally, leaders of leaders. It’s your responsibility to coach managers to become leaders.

Have More Fun

When people tell me they hate being a manager, it’s often a sign that they have set up adversarial relationships rather than advocacy relationships with their employees. Even when leaders need to deliver tough news, they can give it as an advocate.

One sign that managers are working at odds with their employees and need to grow their management skills is that the job of managing people feels tedious and stressful. It’s no fun to be at odds with your employees, and such relationships can be deeply frustrating. When managers evolve from being an adversary to being an advocate, their relationships with their employees change. When both are on the same side, they can work together to achieve lofty goals.

When my employees succeed—delivering high-quality work on time—I feel proud of them because know I’m getting their best effort. I feel good, and they feel good. We all feel both energized and happy. These are the moments when we enjoy working together and feel that we’re working toward a common purpose, making it unlikely that they would consider talking with a recruiter about another role.


UX professionals are purpose-driven beings. We do our work because we care. When leaders can become coaches who advocate for their employees, they can capture the emotional support of their employees, and that’s what drives teams to greatness. When employees believe they can be great and that someone has their back, they can take risks and excel. As a leader, when you can let your employees take responsibility and be there to support them, you can increase your scope of influence and actually grow your career. In the end, you’ll have more fun working with great people who feel empowered, and you can create amazing results together! 

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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