Zenmaster Phil Jackon and bulls in timeout huddle

How To Manage People Who Are Better Than You

Talented technologists often get promoted by desire or default into management. Now with managing people, the rules have changed and success is defined differently than as an individual contributor (IC). You’ll be leading teams that may have people who know more, are smarter, have more experience, or get paid more. How do you successfully lead?

Inspired by a podcast interviewing Phil Jackson, this post alludes to useful bits of the interview with my own commentary. Read on to learn how to manage people “better” than you.

Managing People Better Than You?!

To clarify, when I say “better than you” I don’t mean intrinsically as a human. I’m speaking hyperbolically about trying to lead those who exceed your own talents and skills to the finish line. You may feel (correctly or not) that they know more, are smarter, more experienced, get paid more, etc. and it can crash your leadership.

It can also happen when managing a multi-generation team. Age can be a factor in how people interact with you just like intelligence, experience, and compensation.

Phil Jackson Leading the Chicago Bulls

Growing up as a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I loved watching the Chicago Bulls. One day I was working out listening to the Tetrammaton podcast with Rick Rubin interviewing Phil Jackson. There are parallels in the story of “The Last Dance” and management (project / program / people).

  • Managing talented and headstrong players: MJ, Pippen, Rodman
  • Having the vision for championships and leading the team to want it
  • Dealing with off-court antics e.g. gambling, parties, trouble with the law
  • Managing through death of MJs dad and his temporary retirement (to baseball)

Phil had a philosophy and got the team to buy into it and follow his leadership even though he never scored a basket and they all made more money. Can you imagine telling MJ that he has to pass the ball and take less shots for the team to win? This is someone who was cut from his high school basketball team with a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He also happened to be the best player at the time.

After his tenure with the Bulls, the Zen Master did much the same with the Lakers.

Why Is It Difficult to Manage People Smarter Than You?

There are a plethora of reasons why it is difficult to manage people. In the context of this post, I’ll highlight only a few:

  • Ego and insecurity
  • Management by accident
  • Power dynamics

Ego and Insecurity Managing People

Sometimes it can be Mortal Kombat between your Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It’s not uncommon to see managers leading a team or cross-department endeavor who feel threatened by the more capable members. Whether it is fueled by untrue feelings of inadequacy as the byproduct of a fixed mindset, or whether the delusions of not knowing what you don’t know and jumping cannonball into the empty pool, it is nonetheless a reality some face.

Oftentimes when talented technical people get promoted and have to step away from coding and into management, they question their value. “What is my importance here?” they may ask. They feel not up to par but haven’t yet adjusted to the fact that they are now playing a different game governed by different rules and objectives.

Management by Accident

In my years of working as a database engineer, there’s a phrase in the online SQL Server community called “The Accidental DBA“. This refers to when a DBA, sysadmin, developer, etc. gets unwillingly roped into managing instances and servers. It’s not that it’s a bad fit or totally undesired (although sometimes it is resented); it’s just that sometimes it is serendipity and other times a sentence to working overtime.

Career Ladder Vectors by Vecteezy

Management can be like that – especially if your organization doesn’t have different career ladders for technical positions. If the only choice to advance is to enter management, you’ll end up with those who do it just for the advancement. It’s not really what they want to do, and they find themselves stuck. The Peter Principle explains this and keeps them there.

Power Dynamics

“Why do I have to listen to you?”

“Aren’t you a little young/old/skilled/unskilled/under-over-qualified?”

Regardless of if a colleague says this or thinks it, you’ll have to earn the respect of your team. If these sentiments fester too long it can be challenging to pivot.

Organizational politics is a whole other topic as those with greater tenure, stronger relationships, or harder to replace skills can become an obstacle to much needed change.

For example, I once joined a company and was immediately one of the most (if not the most) technical person in the building. It wasn’t supposition or conjecture – we all knew it. There were some smart people there and one resented my hiring. Maybe he thought he should have this position that was not previously advertised? Perhaps he looked at me and assumed I didn’t know anything? Regardless, he went on to sow discontent and try to cast aspersions or doubt upon my job to those in the small group that would listen.

A few months went by and this problem largely disappeared. I demonstrated my ability that I actually did know what I was doing. I shared my knowledge and showed others instead of insecurely hoarding it. This individual had to interact now and again with me and I made sure to help them with white glove service.

What was the end result? Within 3 months I had a strong technical ally who respected me with some degree of deference. I had found his talents in virtualization and anytime I had a VMware question I knew who to talk with.

How To Better Manage People Better Than You?

Phil Jackson pointed out a couple of tactics for success:

  • Make the tough calls
  • Be the apprentice

Make the tough calls because that’s your job. Don’t shy away from leading or making a decision. People don’t want to follow someone unsure of where they’re going. Along the way there will be difficult conversations that must happen, and you will be the one initiating them.

Be the apprentice because you can never know everything and there is always more to learn. Your team will value your interest in the details of their work and it can build empathy.

In addition to this I will add the following:

  • Growth mindset over fixed mindset
  • Servant leader
  • Be decisive
  • Know your strengths
  • Ask questions
  • Focus on your role and what you can uniquely do
  • Show your care and that you value the team – be a valuable ally
  • Hard work and effort

Unpacking Advice

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s examine them:

Growth mindset over fixed mindset – have the belief that you can always grow, learn, and get better if you work hard. You want to emphasize the effort instead of a defining arbitrary label e.g. instead of “People tell me I’m good at playing the guitar” try “I’ve played guitar for many hours for years, took classes, and learned from other players to become the player I am today”.

Soft Skills Vectors by Vecteezy

Servant leadership – you are likely no longer the smartest person in the room regarding the technical discipline. You don’t have the time or bandwidth to deep dive into every aspect of the software but you must be competent at a high-level.

Highly technical people will not respect you if you do not have a high level knowledge of their craft

Ask questions and practice active listening to learn. Listen and learn – write down your knowledge.

Know your strengths – your job duties put you in a place where you do things specific to your role that often are done unseen by the team. Examples can be inter-departmental relationships, managing expectations, stopping scope creep, being a team spokesperson, taking on the role of “bad cop” to protect your team, and clearing roadblocks.

Show your care down the hierarchy and you will receive respect back up. Don’t micromanage your talent but rather take an actual interest in their work and a genuine care for their career.

Be decisive – listen to feedback but you are accountable for the decision. Your language matters. Ex. instead of “I think we should maybe set the due date to sometime early next week” try “we need to hand over this deliverable to the other team by next Tuesday end of business”. As you grow in confidence you will learn to speak with sufficient authority while taking feedback. “I hear you and thanks for sharing but I’ve decided to go in a different direction”.

Lastly, remember that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!

Pitfalls – What to Avoid When Managing People

In my experience, I’ve seen several behaviors haunt managers to their detriment.

  • Taking things personal
  • Fear of not knowing

Don’t Take It Personal

I’ve seen project managers who struggle with taking things too personal…and by too personal I mean personal at all. A good trait in a manager is having developed “thick skin”. The importance of being calm, professional, and not moved by noise is paramount to your success managing people, projects, and programs. Even as a database administrator I had to get used to people “rattling my cage” at times and triaging critical issues at odd hours. Try to detach and think logically about the situation.

Fear of Not Knowing

A common sin among developers is the transgression of not knowing something. For many it is a high crime not to be admitted to even under the most glaringly obvious pretense. People managers, project managers, and program managers are not exempt from this reaction. The desire to lie, make stuff up, or pretend you know something which you don’t are a pitfall you should avoid.


If you’ve made it all the way through this post – thank you! I’ll bow out and just leave this here…

It’s “The Incompetence Opera” and it focuses in a comically artistic way some factors at play with management e.g. managerial uncertainty, the Peter Principle, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Take it for what it’s worth – these principles and phenomenon are real; just don’t be incompetent like these people.

Thanks for reading!

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