4 min read

Warm take: scale vs. scope

You can't demonstrate care in a crappy system.
Wildflower field - brilliantly colored flowers - red, purple, yellow -  topping neutral sage greens
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

When I was a young manager, I remember telling my boss how surprised I was to learn that so much of business was about people’s feelings. He laughed, kindly, and said something like, “Yes. It’s everything.” I imagine he went home that day, and told his wife, “You’ll never believe what Libby said today.”

I grew. Today, I know that excellent people managers figure out how make space for whole human beings, at every step, and in every process. Some of your work is professional care work.

Managing work might be about scale or scope. Scale applies to repeatable tasks. Scope is variety, nuance.

Some management work can scale; maybe everyone with the same job title has similar goals. Yet, team members have unique identities, personal goals, home lives, temperaments, learning styles, levels of experience, and so forth – attention to all of this (and more) is the care work of management.

Care does not scale. You may know this, viscerally, if you’ve been responsible when someone dear to you needs care. Effective care requires you to perceive and navigate scope. It’s playing the notes, and the space between the notes.

Managerial care work requires you to see beyond the work to be done, and fully accept the human needs of the people on your team who are doing the work. You've got to balance the full variety of needs (and wants.) In part, you must create healthy boundaries.

A dead simple example: an early-stage CEO asked me, “What should I do when everyone goes to the bar after work? I know I shouldn't be everyone’s friend, but I don’t want to be a jerk.” I told him to go out with the team. Once in a while. And not to get drunk, and (usually) be the first to leave.

While poking around for a good resource to share on boundaries for managers, I found many articles about setting boundaries to prevent burnout. (Yes, important.)

I didn't find anything I liked about good boundaries for a manager-managee relationship. As this is one of my Warm Takes, I let it go. For now.

To paraphrase an article for teachers, which you'll find below in Links: you’re a manager. Not a friend, therapist, or family member.

Increasingly, we have to think about our boundaries with respect to the systems we're working in. You and your co-workers are not machines – technology and automation should serve all of you.

Attempts to scale our humanity are, at best, foolish.


How do you set/maintain boundaries at work? Write to me! I love hearing from you all, and I'm on the lookout for better resources on this important topic.

I also welcome your recommendations for my (nearly) annual Summer Reading edition, coming soon. What are you reading, watching, listening to?

Today's Warm Take was written last weekend, while I was pounding caffeine and attempting to navigate an elderly family member's interaction with the health care system, an endeavor I do not recommend. Emphatically. Polished this morning while drinking my first cup of coffee, before I head back out into the same battle.

As with my other Warm Takes, I will likely find typos and more, which I'll correct later on, on the Internet.

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free.

Anne Libby

Me and my sisters, vs. Big Senior Medical Care