Managerial tools: Meta goals & Narrative
What is your narrative?
I was talking to someone who works for a large tech company and was recently promoted into mid-senior management in the product space. He was morose, feeling like an imposter and worried if he fit in with his peer group of managers. He said he didn’t think the company wanted him to focus on the team, all they cared about was performance. His peers were hyper performance oriented and he didn’t want to compete with them on performance since the way the company measured performance didn't appeal to him. His conclusion was that the company values and his values weren’t aligned and perhaps it was time to look out for a new role outside.
What is your meta goal?
When we dug into this career narrative he was sharing with me and starting to believe, the different parts of his story seemed contradictory. He said he wanted to take care of his team but when he spoke about his team, it was clear that the real desire was to be liked by his team. I call these desires, ‘meta goals’, goals that overrule all other goals and guide how we operate. Think of them as the root causes vs. symptoms of goals.
His management meta goal was to be liked by his team. Unfortunately, as a manager, sometimes your team will not like you because you will have to make difficult decisions and prioritize the team and the company over individual interests. If you’ve been promoted from within the company, quite often, you are suddenly managing your peers and there will likely be some friction as your interactions change. There may also be some resentment because everyone is aware of their work but most people aren’t aware of the work others do and thus they assume they’re doing more and deserve more credit - case in point, married couples and household chores. Research has shown that in a majority of couples each spouse believes they do more in the house because they’re only aware of what they do.
You might say, didn’t the company tell him to behave a certain way toward his team? Wasn’t the company telling him to be competitive? Turns out the company wasn’t dictating anything.
His true meta goal when it came to the company was to get promoted and to be better than his peers because he felt insecure about whether he deserved to be there and wanted to prove himself.
In this case, his meta goal was to outperform his peers to prove himself. It wasn’t to do what is right for the company or to do what’s right for the customer. There’s a difference between these two goals. If you are visible and loud and ‘yes-man’ senior leadership and optimize for vanity metrics, you can get promoted. If you do what is right for the company or for the customer, it’s a tougher job. But often more satisfying if you're chasing purpose. And purpose was what he felt was lacking. He was no longer close to the product, getting his hands dirty with a manager to look out for him. He was the manager, removed from the product & customer and overseeing a team.
How meta goals influence us
It doesn’t have to be that way in management. A manager whose meta goal is to do what’s right for the customer and the team uses their time to understand customer needs, they ensure the team is rooted in the same needs, they spend time understanding each individual's unique goals and strengths and delegating work in a way that taps into those strengths. This manager will practice radical candor and share feedback in a way that’s direct yet focused on helping an individual get stronger.
A manager who has a meta goal of being liked won’t share constructive feedback with their team. They will take on more work themselves so that it’s done ‘perfectly’ vs. having to coach team members, which often requires sharing constructive feedback. This manager will never have time to focus on developing their team members because they will be working on tasks vs. getting leverage from their team. A manager who wants to get promoted may not speak up when more senior leaders are making decisions that could be harmful for the customer and lead to long term challenges for the company.
A manager who wants to be liked and wants to be promoted will often take contradictory actions. They’ll want to give their team credit but also want to keep the credit because it may help their chance of promotion. They’ll want their peers to like them but also feel the need to show their peers up to get that next promotion.
When we uncovered his meta goals, he had this huge aha moment, his life narrative wasn't a fact, it was a story. And it wasn't a story that was serving him. It made him defensive and a people pleaser, it made him work very hard for validation without a clear purpose. It made his world a zero sum game.
Change your meta goals, change your narrative
All of us tell us stories about what is going on in our lives and in most stories, we love enacting the hero’s journey. In this case, our hero’s brain didn’t love the labels he gave himself ‘I’m not enough’ & ‘I’m an imposter’ and to protect him, his brain decided to make the company the enemy and him the hero fighting this evil company.
Once he understood his meta goals and decided to change them to match his values, his narrative changed. He was no longer the victim of an evil company that wanted to make his team work crazy hours to feed a capitalist machine. Now, he recognizes that he is insecure because of his new role and that’s a perfectly normal reaction. He recognizes that his role with his team is going to change and that's ok. He's focused on getting the best out of them while providing them with a safe environment in which they can flourish, experiment and grow. His peers aren't his competitors anymore, they're a community he can lean on and learn from while he navigates the often turbulent seas of leadership.