Primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm” is a universal principle among healthcare professionals worldwide. It essentially means this: given a (bad) situation, your first priority is to not make it worse through your actions. Doctors hold a position of power over their patients. Most patients are unqualified to diagnose and treat themselves, so they must trust the education, experience, and skill of the doctor. A doctor can significantly (even terminally) affect a patient’s life.
I propose “first, do no harm” as a principle to apply in every situation where the do-er has a position of power over those his or her actions affect. Like managers.
Managers hold a position of power in an organization. A manager having a bad day can make a decision that changes the course of years of multiple people’s lives. A managerial decision can destroy morale, burn people out, or even ruin another person’s career.
Couple this power with the typical human need to do something, and we have a problem on our hands. As people, we grow anxious when we’re in a position in which we don’t feel we’re actively doing anything. Especially for new managers, this can drive a person crazy. You’re used to being the producer who gets things done, and suddenly you’re in meetings and you aren’t the one producing anymore. How do you measure your productivity?
In the worst case, you base it on something like the number of decisions you make or the number of processes you change.
Try to remember the last time you were in a job and things got screwed up because a manager was out of the office. Now try to remember the last time things were screwed up because of an offhand comment, a sarcastic remark, a poorly timed email, or a decision some manager made.
At a tactical level, the risks of managerial action far outweigh the risks of inaction.
Therefore, managers–especially you first-time new managers, please don’t feel pressured to just do something. Be reasoned and careful when you encounter a new problem.
Rule number one is: First, do no harm.