March 4

How to manage people in Singapore (no hacks needed)


That night, I couldn’t sleep well.

I had to think about how to tell the intern I was managing that he was doing too badly, and I had to sack him.

As a first-time manager who was barely 27, I didn’t know how to say it in a nice way.

I ended up curtly telling him that I was terminating his work with immediate effect. And didn’t bother replying him for the rest of the time.

This is bad management.

Although I had read countless books on management, this was a different beast.

I just didn’t know how to do it.

And if you’re a first time manager today, you might be facing similar problems.

The problem is, whilst there are helpful books out there, most of them are written for a Western context, which doesn’t map easily to a Singaporean culture.

Management, in a nutshell
Management, in a nutshell

It’s really not about ‘authentic management’ in Singapore

Many books today talk about authenticity. About how you should be open and honest about your vulnerabilities as a leader, and let people you manage know about you.

But doing that in Singapore is a good recipe for failure.

In the first team I built, I regularly shared memos about what we were doing as a team, and how we were planning to progress forward. I shared what I didn’t know.

I thought this would prompt greater hard work.

It didn’t. Instead, staff felt demoralised that I didn’t know the answers. They wanted some sense of direction.

One of the best managers I learnt from, strangely, came from the army. I confess. I hated him at first.

But when I look back at his leadership, I realise that he had much to offer.

My first team manager taught me how to stop focusing on people’s weaknesses.

Directional management

He came in as the Captain and Commanding Officer of our battalion in the army. Faced with an extremely difficult team, he built a strong sense of culture through a strong, disciplinarian style. People hated him for that.

Who would want to be scolded and be held to high standards?

But this pushed us to become the very best we could be.

At the same time, this was also the first time he was taking over such a big role, having recently been promoted. I’m sure there were many things he didn’t know.

But he didn’t give up. Instead, he chose to be extremely directive with what he told us.

Better management starts from a strong sense of self

This stemmed from a deep sense of conviction and self-esteem.

Those that are best at managing usually have a strong sense of self-assurance, from within.

Better management starts from within
Better management starts from within

Even when they are not exactly sure what is the best route forward, they trust their gut instinct.

But research by Albert Bandura, the father of social learning theory, has shown that self-assurance (labeled “self-efficacy” by cognitive psychologists), not self-awareness, is the strongest predictor of a person’s ability to set high goals, to persist in the face of obstacles,

to bounce back when reversals occur, and, ultimately, to achieve the goals they set.

Marcus Buckingham, Harvard Business Review, in his article ‘What Great Managers Do’

How do you build this sense of self-assurance?

Acknowledging that you aren’t going to always make the best decision is a good first step. But the second part is recognising that you have to do your due diligence to arrive at the best answer.

You want to be accountable for why you made your decision.

The next part is learning how to better work with your staff.

You don’t have to tear your hair out over your staff. Celebrate their strengths instead.

Building self-assurance, not self-awareness

What’s interesting is that telling your staff their weaknesses does not work. Instead, it may backfire.

Buckingham’s great article on ‘What Great Managers Do’ shares how a focus on strengths often lead to better outcomes.

When I managed a web developer for a recent project, I thought that telling him his weaknesses was helpful.

He was great at details, but not so good at design.

I kept repeating that he needed to improve on his design language.

But it didn’t work.

Instead, I became more upset when he couldn’t drive a better design of the webpages we made.

Later, I adjusted to celebrating his strengths, and building a way where we could best harness his strengths in details.

I took over the design, whilst I left him to handle the web-development details, such as hosting, adjusting the programming details, and handling the small detailed changes that clients wanted.

what I learnt from Vivian Balakrishnan
Sometimes managing people isn’t that easy. You just need to learn how to build a good role for them.

This made both of us more effective as a team.

When you see yourself working poorly with a staff, don’t just criticise his weaknesses. Telling him that is not helpful.

Instead, understand his strengths and how you can best use that.

Be a organisational manager

The best managers are also skilled at navigating the organisation, and figuring out how best to protect their staff from the worst of the organisation, and to bring out the best of their staff through the organisation.

This is a dual role that is hard to play, but important to do.

One of the best managers I saw was Fiona (not her real name.)

When she worked with me, she was a great corporate diplomat. For Valentine’s Day, she bought everyone cupcakes to celebrate.

She would mediate between warring factions in the organisation we were at, often building a middle point where everyone could meet.

She would also teach her interns how to navigate the organisation, by taking them out for lunches and slowly explaining to them how the organisation worked.

If you looked at what she did, she was effectively playing organisation politics.

Grace Teo-Dixon, a Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) lecturer, said this in the interview for Vault!, the book I wrote.

Connect to the nodes

We have this theory called social network theory. You have people called ‘nodes’, or structural holes . Or in Hokkien parlance, your ‘lobangs’.

It’s always good to be in contact with a lobang. For an introvert, keep in touch with these people. If you only like talking to one person, then make it a ‘lobang-person’. They connect you to other people.

Knowing how people connect, where the alliances and feuds lie, is vital to survive well as a manager
Knowing how people connect, where the alliances and feuds lie, is vital to survive well as a manager

Learn to learn

At the end of the day, the best managers are those who are rapidly able to adjust their understanding of a situation, and then buffer their people from the worst of the organisation, and push them to become the best of themselves.

You play both a protective, and a pushing role.

That’s hard.

But that’s also why it’s worth doing.

Because you have the chance to bring out the best of people.



You may also like

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get in touch

0 of 350