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The manager’s dilemma is that they are responsible for the performance of their team but can't force anyone to perform.

It also seems odd that we would make someone responsible for something they can't control. However, that's not quite true; managers do have a degree of control over the output of their team. For a start, they get to pick the team (and make changes when required). They also help create the objectives and create a performance-conducive environment.

Why can't performance be forced? Well, this hasn't always been the case. Back in the industrial age, work in factories was mundane and repeatable. All performance required was putting in place a strict process and incentivizing people to follow it to a tee. In the information age, however, performance requires creativity, and creativity can't be coerced.

It turns out that creativity is especially difficult to cultivate; it requires a specific climate and careful nurturing.

Creativity is not an assembly line

Great managers set goals, not tasks. Giving a creative type too much direction is like overwatering your plantsβ€”it'll suffocate them. Your job is to communicate in detail the important challenges the company is facing and the immediate-term goals. Then ask your team to come up with proposals to achieve those goals.

Sure, those proposals might need a bit of editing, but by moving the decision-making process to your team, you are achieving two things:

  1. Wisdom of the crowds. If you've hired well, your team should be making as good if not better decisions than you.
  2. Buy-in. Great creative work is not achievable without your team's buy-in. An authoritarian approach only serves to dull the creative spirit.

Don't micromanage your team's work or daily output. If you find yourself supervising too often, you've hired the wrong people.

Setting goals

Good goal setting, especially at an individual level, is a learned skill. Goals should be:

  • Audacious but achievable
  • Clearly important (make sure your team understands why they are important)
  • Aligned with your team's talents and individual goals

A great manager is able to describe the unique talents of each team member, and cast members into roles that play to theseβ€”just like a movie director.

We all have innate talents and strengths (see Zone of Genius), so don't try and change people. Instead, give them work they're going to be great at.


Ownership is the key to performance. Think about how it feels when the company makes you responsible for a goal. Doesn't it feel exciting? Exhilarating? It's now up to you and your team to figure out how to achieve it. The rest of the company is trusting you. In short, you have agency.

Your job as a manager is to instill that feeling in the rest of your team. They should feel real autonomy and ownership over their work, and they should understand why it's important and how it fits into the greater picture.

Debugging poor performance

If someone is failing to achieve their goals (or getting anywhere close), then you have a performance issue. There is a simple thought experiment you can use for diagnosing this:


Ask yourself whether this person is capable of doing the work you want them to do if their life depended on it. Is it a question of motivation or a question of capability?

If their life depended on it and they could do it, then that’s on you as a leader not providing the proper motivation. Most of the time that’s due to you not providing the larger story as to why their work is meaningful and the impact they will have.

If however, they would be unable to do it even if their life depended on it, then that is your mistake as a manager for expecting them to be able to.

β€” Lessons from Keith Rabois Essay 3: How to be an Effective Executive by Delian Asparouhov

Someone’s ability to do a particular task is called β€œtask-relevant maturity,” which essentially means how much experience someone has in doing this task. We will cover this next in Delegation.

Manager myths

There are some common manager myths that keep them from capitalizing on their team's full potential. Try to avoid these myths!

  • There's one best way (let your team figure out their best way).
  • Certain roles don't require talent (everything does, to some degree).
  • Trust must be earned (trust should be largely given by defaultβ€”you've vetted your team thoroughly before they join).
  • Some outcomes cannot be defined (a.k.a. the "I don't like my targets being measured" excuse).