Manage Agreements, Not People

Those that are most slow in making a promise are the most faithful in the performance of it.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Does anybody here work with people who seem unmanageable?" Matt asked as he opened one of his leadership seminars.

The managers who filled the room nodded and smiled in agreement. Some rolled their eyes skyward in agreement. They obviously had a lot of experience trying to manage people like that.

"How do you do it?" one manager called out. "How do you manage unmanageable people?"

"I don't know," Matt said.

"What do you mean you don't know? We're here to find out how to do it," someone else called out.

"I've never seen it done," Matt said. "Because I believe, in the end, all people are pretty unmanageable. I've never known anyone who was good at managing people."

"Then why have a seminar on managing people if it can't be done?"

"Well, you tell me, can it be done? Do you actually manage your people? Do you manage your spouse? Can you do it? I don't think so."

"Well, then, is class dismissed?"

"No, certainly not. Because we can all stay and learn how great leaders get great results from their people. But they do it without managing people, because basically you can't manage people."

"If they don't manage people, what do they do?"

"They manage agreements."

Managers make a mistake when they try to manage their people. They end up trying to shovel mercury with a pitchfork, managing people's emotions and personalities.

Then they try to "take care" of their most upset people, not in the name of better communication and understanding, but in the name of containing dissent and being liked.

This leads to poor time management and a lot of ineffective amateur psychotherapy. It also encourages employees to take a more immature position in their communication with management, almost an attempt to be re-parented by a supervisor rather than having an adult-to-adult relationship.

A leader's first responsibility is to make sure the relationship is a mature one.

A true leader does not run around playing amateur psychotherapist, trying to manage people's emotions and personalities all day. A leader is compassionate, and always seeks to understand the feelings of others. But a leader does not try to manage those feelings.

A leader, instead, manages agreements. A leader creates agreements with team members and enters into those agreements on an adult-to-adult basis. All communication is done with respect. There is no giving in to the temptation to be intimidating, bossy, or all-knowing.

Once agreements are made on an adult-to-adult basis, people don't have to be managed anymore. What gets managed is the agreement. It is more mature and respectful to do it that way and both sides enjoy more open and trusting communication. There is also more accountability running both ways. It is now easier to discuss uncomfortable subjects.

Harry was an employee who always showed up late for team meetings. Many managers would deal with this problem by talking behind Harry's back, or trying to intimidate Harry with sarcasm, or freezing Harry out and not return his calls, or meeting with Harry to play therapist. But our client Jill would do none of that.

Jill co-generated an agreement with Harry that Harry (and Jill) would be on time for meetings.

They agreed to agree, and they agreed to keep their commitments to the agreements. It is and adult process that leads to open communication and relaxed accountability. Jill has come to realize that when adults agree to keep their agreements with each other, it leads to a more openly accountable company culture. It leads to higher levels of self-responsibility and self-respect.

The biggest beneficial impact of managing agreements is on communication. It frees communication up to be more honest, open and complete.

A commitment to managing agreements is basically a commitment to being two professional adults working together, as opposed to "I'm your dad, I'm you father, I'm your mother, I'm your parent, and I will re-parent you. You're a child, and you're bad and you've done wrong, and I'm upset with you, and I'm disappointed in you, and I know what you've got your reasons and you've got your alibis and your stories, but still, I'm disappointed in you." That kind of approach is not management, it's not leadership. It's not even professional. That kind of approach, which we would say eight out of 10 managers do, is just a knee-jerk, intuitively parent-child approach to managing human beings.

The problem with parent-child management is that the person being managed does not feel respected in that exchange. And the most important, the most powerful, precondition to good performance is trust and respect.

Because a leader is always serving, too. Not just laying down the law, but serving. And always asking, "How can I assist you? How can I serve you and help you with this?"

Because the true leader wants an absolute promise, and absolute performance.

And now that the two people have agreed, I ask very sincerely, "Can I count on you now to have this done, with 100-percent compliance? Can I count on that from you?"

"Yes, of course you can."

Great. We shake. Two professionals are leaving this meeting with an agreement they both made out of mutual respect, out of professional, group-up conversation. Nobody was "managed."


  1. I think you do manage human systems and people. That doesn't mean you manipulate them. It does mean you respect them. But it also means you coach them and supervise them and assist them...

    I do think agreeing to understandings on what is expect is a good step to managing.

  2. Excellent point. For years I have coached the managers in my MBA and Executive Education classes to manage agreements, not the people. The points you make here are "spot on" and they work. I train people how to use performance conversations to create the agreements and closure conversations to complete them and build accountability. Thanks for making this point clear.