My People Manager Promises

by Dylan Thomas

A few years ago, I became a people manager for the first time. While I had led teams and projects for years, it was in the “responsibility without authority” construct common and crucial to project and product management. I was now officially responsible for the development and career advancement of several direct reports across a number of disciplines. I did a lot of thinking about what kind of manager I would be, and how I would approach it.

The first thing I came up with was the promises.

I make these promises in the first one-on-one meeting I have with a team member.

The 4 promises I make

  • I will always be honest with you, and you can ask me anything.

  • If I can’t tell you something, I’ll tell you that.

  • I will always make time to help, talk, guide, troubleshoot.

  • I won’t blindside you.

Exploring the promises

The first time I make the promises, some discussion is needed to make sure their expectations are clear.

It’s important to note that none of these require anything of the other person-these are commitments that I am making to them, for myself.

I will always be honest with you, and you can ask me anything.

Honesty and transparency are important ways that I build trust and psychological safety in all my relationships. If you can’t trust me to tell you the truth, or answer an honestly asked question, I’m of no use to you.

I want to help you achieve your goals and make sure you have everything you need to succeed. I’m also your most direct conduit for information about the organization.

If I can’t tell you something, I’ll tell you that.

There may be times when I am legally or ethical prevented from sharing what I know. In that case I’ll simply say “That’s not something I can share or comment on,” but I will never lie about it or make something up. I won’t tell you your job is safe when I know layoffs are coming.

Aside: I am surprised how often this comes up at public companies.

I will always make time to help, talk, guide, troubleshoot

First, I love helping and coaching and mentoring and figuring things out, it’s just how I’m wired.

Secondly, I strongly believe that the role of a manager is to support and enable their team in whatever way they are able. Sometimes that’s listening like a therapist, and sometimes it’s figuring out that the numbers in your report aren’t matching up because you didn’t factor in time zones.

I won’t blindside you.

This won’t always be in my control, but my goal is that you first hear any news that affects you from me, in private. I don’t want you to be surprised in front of others and forced to react, even to good news. By doing it in private, your reactions and questions can be held in confidence. By making sure to deliver it myself, you know that the other promises apply and you can trust my intentions.

Feedback from team members

On several occasions I heard this was the first time they had ever been given explicit expectations of their manager by their manager. The promises removed a lot of uncertainty.

Results and reflections

While I initially conceived of the promises in the context of my manager/team member relationships, it worked so well, and it reflected my values so perfectly that I use it as the explicit basis for all of my work relationships. I even make it part of my introduction to new groups of colleagues. The greatest advantage of starting a relationship with some explicit promises is that it frees people from wondering, and lets them focus on what’s important.

I periodically revisit the promises to see if I need to revise the list but so far I haven’t needed to. I can see adding to the list in the future, but I can’t see ever needing to remove any of the current four.

Regarding my team, in some cases when I make these promises, team members reciprocate naturally. Others do not, but are appreciative of them. What I noticed is that the promises seemed to permeate their interactions in the organization. Whether this is a result of an implied expectation transmitted by my promises, by some critical mass of accepting these promises as their own, or by their inherent goodness I had nothing to do with, the team culture became one of supportive openness. In contrast to other teams at the time, I saw the relatively quick development of a cohesive team identity, a supportive team dynamic, and strong team psychological safety during a tumultuous time for the organization.