As a technical manager, you are likely well-equipped to handle the technical challenges of your role. But what about the emotional and psychological challenges that come with leadership? The weight of responsibility, unmet expectations, and unappreciated efforts can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of frustration, disappointment, and burnout. I call this the "leader's burden", and it is a common experience for many leaders.
It's best to go through quick examples to cement this leader's burden concept:
- You're a Product Manager, if you do a great job, that means other people like software engineers will also do great, and the recognition will be for the team in most cases. When things don't go well, or you have to tell people "no" to a feature for whatever reason, that could feel like it's all on you.
- You're a manager and some of your reports have requested salary increases with justification. You go to bat for them to secure the additional budget for your team even when you'd also like a salary increase. You prioritise your team ahead of yourself. You cannot secure all of the budget to grant all the increases you'd like, but you can bump some salaries. Still, people are disappointed.
- You identify a major issue with nuanced implications before anyone else and take care of it before it becomes a real problem. You work very hard on it and do a great job in your mind. Other people ask why it wasn't done sooner.
- You invest heavily in coaching and developing an employee, and they leave for another opportunity before making an equivalent contribution to the team.
The above are some examples of the leader's burden. Every successful organisation out there needs people willing to implement the examples above and be energised by them despite the feedback received.
That's not easy. These hard actions don't always help you be recognised or be everyone's favourite person.
So let's dig into more about the leader's burden.
The leader's burden refers to the emotional and psychological stress that comes with the responsibility of leading others. It is the result of the expectations and pressures that leaders face, both from themselves and from those they lead. When these expectations are not met or efforts go unacknowledged, it can lead to feelings of disappointment and frustration. This burden can be especially challenging for technical managers, who are tasked with balancing the demands of technical expertise and leadership.
The common challenges that leaders face include managing conflicting priorities, making difficult decisions, delivering bad news and navigating conflicting opinions and perspectives. These experiences can take a toll on a leader's well-being and performance, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout. It is important for leaders to recognise the impact of the leader's burden and to develop strategies for coping with these challenges in a positive and productive way.
Embracing the leader's burden means recognising the challenges of leadership and taking proactive steps to manage these experiences positively. This requires resilience, self-awareness, and a proactive approach to problem-solving.
By consciously thinking about this leader's burden concept and recognising it, you will feel better about it.
Your contributions and efforts allow others around you to do their best work and be their best self. I find that intrinsically motivating and you can to.
Unmet expectations are one the biggest killers of life and are responsible for many negative feelings. It's not worth the damage to your soul and sense of self not to have a healthy perspective on unmet expectations.
Take the example of being a parent, of which I have two children. I give up a lot for my kids, I spend time with them when I could be doing numerous other things I'd like to be doing at that time. I do not place the expectation on my kids that they will appreciate me for that time. If I did and they did not reciprocate (which they won't), that hurts me. It doesn't hurt them.
That's not to say your work colleagues are children of course!
So, how can you deal with unmet expectations and unappreciated efforts as a technical manager? Here are some tips and strategies to help you cope with the leader's burden:
Seek out supportive relationships
Building strong, supportive relationships with colleagues and mentors can provide a source of encouragement and guidance as you navigate the challenges of leadership. Seek out people who can offer constructive feedback and support, and be open to learning from their experiences and insights. You will get better results if this is your manager, not your peers and reports. Bring this up in your 1:1s.
Find healthy ways to manage your emotions
When dealing with feelings of loneliness and frustration, it is important to find healthy and constructive ways to manage these emotions. This could include engaging in physical activity and practicing mindfulness and meditation. For example, deeply reflect and expand on this leader's burden concept, shine a light on it and that alone may make you feel better.
"It's just the way it is"
Embrace a mindset of "It's just the way it is". Don't fight against it, and don't create unmet expectations. This is what leaders do, and this is why you're valuable. Find joy in seeing others achieve things because of your efforts, whether it's publicly praised or not.
Bank the good times
There will have been times when you've done something in 20 minutes and people have been amazed. Remember that in times when you spend weeks doing something important where you're just asked why it hasn't been finished yet. Like wise, there will be times when a team member of yours delivers something of high value that you will share the praise in. It does go both ways sometimes. Bank the times you did receive praise for less effort and recall them in the tougher situations.
Make time for yourself
Make time in your job to learn or produce something you are in control of. Carving out "individual contributor" time even though you are a manager gives you something to work towards that's just for you. Do that course, learn that new skill.
Engage in self-reflection
Regular self-reflection can help you understand your strengths and weaknesses, and identify areas for improvement. This can help you develop a more self-aware and proactive approach to leadership, and can also provide a sense of perspective and clarity in the face of challenging experiences. Perhaps you can find others experiencing what you're experiencing if you speak more openly about it. I suggest using your 1:1s with your manager to begin with.
These are just a few of the strategies that can help you deal with the challenges of unmet expectations and unappreciated efforts as a technical manager. By embracing the leader's burden and developing the skills and strategies needed to effectively manage these experiences, you can build resilience, increase self-awareness, and emerge as a more effective and impactful leader.
It is also important to recognise that no leader is immune to the challenges of unmet expectations and unappreciated efforts. Even the most successful leaders have faced these experiences and do so on a regular basis, but it is how they choose to respond that sets them apart. By embracing the leader's burden and developing the skills and strategies needed to manage these experiences, you can build resilience, increase self-awareness, and emerge as a more effective and impactful leader.