The difference between Management and Leadership in UX

Management and Leadership are different things.


Josh LaMar

3 years ago | 19 min read

Management and Leadership are different things. One is not the prerequisite of the other nor does one does precede the other. What makes a good manager is not what makes a good leader.

What makes a good leader is not necessarily what makes a good manager. When we tease apart how these roles interact, we learn how to be good at both.

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

My personal journey

While I am drawing on my experience as a UX Research Manager at a big tech company, these concepts and principles equally apply to Design Management and UX Leadership in general.

This also also applies to individual contributors who want to be leaders or managers and can hopefully help explain what their managers are going through.

My personal journey on the paths of management and leadership have sometimes intersected and sometimes not. When I first became a manager, I was a mid-career Researcher at Microsoft-just barely promoted from being a Junior Researcher. I had been reorg’d into a new team as the only researcher.

We built 8 apps that shipped with Windows 8: it was too much for a single researcher to handle on their own! “Hey, can I have some help?” I asked my manager. “Sure!” was the response and all of a sudden, I was a manager.

I started off with two contractors. Soon, one of them became a full-time employee (FTE) and then I hired another. (Note: “FTE” is opposed to an, “IC,” or individual contributor/aka not a manager).

As the organization grew, so did my team, all the while taking on more and more scope and hiring more and more researchers. Then there was another reorg and my team doubled.

Early on, when I just had a single contractor, I really enjoyed it. I felt like I had a friend working with me who was intelligent, competent, and a great partner in crime. I just happened to have a direct reporting relationship to her. However, as the organization grew and reorg’d with another org (“Hostile takeover,” might be a better term), I started enjoying my job less and less.

I had more people to manage, which in turn took more of my time. For example, a one-hour one-on-one/1:1 meeting with each of my direct reports meant that I had 10 hours of meetings already booked up EVERY WEEK! I’ll not pretend that my job was 40 hours a week, either. Anything that didn’t fit in 40 just got added to the end of each day and my days just got longer.

On the other hand, I took a LOT of training courses in Management. I had a ton of training support at Microsoft and I took full advantage of learning as much as I could about my new role. I realized very quickly that my new job as a Manager was a completely different job than my previous roles as a Researcher.

This led to my first lesson of Management.

What gets you promoted to becoming a manager is not the same as what will help you succeed in management.

How do you become a Research Manager?

Well, the first step is to be very good at your craft of being a Researcher. Do research well. Present your findings well. And (most importantly) impact the direction of the Product.

I’m sure that seeing a future Leader in you is something else that will help you become a Manager as well.

I was never trying to become a manager, though. I was given the role, but I wasn’t seeking the role. Actually, all truth be told, I was seeking a mentor. A senior or principal researcher that I could look up to and who could help me navigate the politics of going up the corporate ladder.

I remember when my title changed to include the magic word, “Lead.” I was excited, don’t get me wrong, because it carries new weight and a lot more responsibility. My new job was something very different. I was suddenly being evaluated in a different way. My job wasn’t doing research anymore.

How do you succeed in Management?

I was up to a new challenge, but I had no idea what I was getting into. As I took more management training, I learned frameworks for how to approach managing individuals vs. managing a team. There are a few different aspects of management and each helps you to succeed.

Managing a team involves separate areas, which I’ll discuss in a separate section below:

  1. Managing up: Understanding “The Business”
  2. Managing the Individual: HR Policies, coaching, and employee development
  3. Managing the Team: Leadership

Managing up: Understanding “The Business”

Corporations are hierarchical. There are people above you and below you.

The higher up you go, the more people are below you.

The more people are below you, the more you are seen as being in a position of authority… a position that carries weight and responsibility. And that responsibility goes in both directions: a responsibility to the people who report to you and also a responsibility to the people above you… to “The Business.”

This dual responsibility may be hard to grasp at first. I thought my job was to take care of the people reporting to me, to direct their work and help them be successful. And yes, this is all true, but the responsibility also goes to supporting the business goals by ensuring a “direct line of sight” between the stated business goals and the priorities that you set for your team.

Business strategies are monetary: make money. This was not a way that my brain worked. Making money for the business is not what mattered to me. What mattered to me was solving people’s problems through creating products that people loved.

From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to build something that doesn’t make money because then the corporation won’t exist, and thus, your job wouldn’t exist, either.

Now, as a business owner, I can look back and see how much my perspective has changed on what the business is and why the business matters. Here’s how I could have thought about things differently.

Acknowledge that the business has to make money

The first step to being a good UX Manager is to understand and make peace with the fact that the business has to make money and that your job depends on the business making money. If the business fails, you’re out of a job. So, it makes sense to understand what the business goals are, so that you can provide the research to help support those goals.

Let me state this stronger: your job as a Research Manager is to ensure that you keep the business grounded in reality. Grounded in user data. That the decisions that the business makes are supported by data that you’ve collected about your product.

You can, and should be, as objective as possible in your approach to research in order to gather the best possible data… so that the business makes the best choices about what to build (or not build).

How can Research help the business make money?

Usage. If people are using your product, the business will make money. If people are not using your product, the business will not make money. It’s as simple as that.

Ok, it’s not that simple in reality… but logically, it is easy to grasp. The tricky part is then figuring out how to get people to use your product, especially when other, better products may be out there already. Then you’re looking at behavioral change, and that’s really hard. But the research approach is the same.

There are several myths out there about users. For some reason, intelligent people working at big tech companies still build features that people don’t need because they think that everyone else is just like them, even though they make more money than 90% of the country and it’s their job to care about technology.


Maybe some people do, but they are the minority. Most people don’t think about technology like you or I do. Most people are too busy thinking about their own lives and if they do think about technology, it’s as a means to an end.

Technology isn’t an end in itself for most people.

It’s a shortcut to getting their job done. (See also the Jobs to be Done, JTBD, framework). Another way to put this is to say that technology helps people get from A to C faster, where A is where they are starting from, B is the tool they use, and C is where they really want to get.

People’s goals can be as varied as, “Stay in touch with my family,” “Get my term paper finished,” or “Have fun with my friends.” They don’t typically think a lot about the tool that gets them there. They just pick the one they think will work the best.

A great question is to add, “So that…” or “Why?” to the end of each step so that you can get to the heart of the real goal. For example: Finish my term paper so that I can get a good grade in my class so that I can get a good job when I graduate so that I can become a [career name], so that I can start and provide for a family, so that I can be happy in life. If you go up high enough, you can get to safety and security. (This example takes inspiration from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

People use technology because it solves a problem that they have. It makes the process simpler, easier, faster, more efficient, and sometimes, even pleasurable.

Notice that I didn’t use any specific technology in the example above. It could be Microsoft Word, or Google Docs, or anything else the user wants to use to get their job done.

What matters is that the tool actually helps them get it done. (For more information on understanding users, their pain points, and building the right solutions, check out my article, A Fundamental Truth of User-Centered Design that is Simple, yet Forgotten).

Now, let’s take this back to the business:

How is the business going to make money? When people use your product.
Why would people use your product? Because it’s good. Because it solves a problem that people have. Because it’s better than the competition.
Discovering the answer to these questions exist solely in the sphere of UX Research!

We can test the product against the competition, we can understand whether or not your product solves someone’s problem, and we can evaluate other potential solutions that might be better. We can then design those solutions… and test them.

And come up with the best solution to your users’ problems. UX Design & Research is uniquely qualified to address these questions and to design and evaluate the solutions.

And this is the sphere to exist in as a research manager while you are communicating with the business. You have a responsibility to the business to keep them honest and on track.

To only build things that solve people’s problems… so that they will use it… so that the business will make money… so that you get paid and have a job to keep making things better in the future. It’s a beneficial circle.

Communicating the business to your team

As a UX Manager, when communicating to your team, your responsibility is to translate the business goals and priorities into what it means we as researchers need to do to support these goals. The topics that we need to study.

The questions we need to answer. The competitive perspective against the competition. But the overall goal is the same: build the best product you can so that people will use it.

Not only do you have a responsibility as a manager to the business, you also have a responsibility to your employee/direct report. Sometimes what’s best for the business isn’t always what’s best for your direct report.

Or, what’s best for your direct report isn’t in the best interest of the business. And, as UX Managers, you have to navigate that. This brings us to our next aspect of management.

Managing the Individual: HR Policies, Coaching, and Employee Development

Managing up to the business isn’t the same as managing your direct reports. And when you’re managing a team, there are both team dynamics and interpersonal dynamics at play. In this section, I’ll discuss the interpersonal, one-on-one dynamics and then we’ll look at team dynamics in the next section.

As I mentioned above, your role as a UX Manager is twofold when it comes to your employees as well: both to the individual and to the Business. Usually, these two align and doing what’s best for your employee is always what’s best for the company.

Keep your employee happy so that they will work hard on important problems that are interesting and also align with business goals that keep the product moving forward… so that people use it, so the business makes money, etc. (you now know the rest).

When it comes to managing the individual there are a few key aspects to be aware of:

  1. Employee development: the interpersonal side
  2. Human Resources: the official side
  3. Ethical considerations

In other words, there is the formal, HR-centered “official” permanent record aspect of management and then there is the interpersonal aspect. Both are important.

Employee Development

My first responsibility was to the individual. I want my team to be excited and motivated by what they are working on because we all do our best work when we are interested and excited about what we are doing. We do our best work when we see a purpose to it-this is getting into “Leadership” territory, which I’ll cover in more depth below.

So, the first thing is to assess where the individual is at, where they want to go and then give them opportunities or “experiences” they need to get there. The best way to be a good manager is to actually give a shit about the people who report to you. Care about them as people first and then be that guide to coach them into who they want to become and where they want to take their career.

Managing the individual is about conversations, but it’s mostly about listening, offering advice when needed, and empowering people to do what they think is best.

People learn best when they are empowered to make their own choices.

The worst managers I’ve ever had did the opposite: the micromanaged every aspect to take away all autonomy I had. They told me what to do and never asked me what I thought.

There is one very good reason for not doing this: your employee is closer to the data than you are.

They actually know more than you do! And because of that, they are actually more qualified to make decisions about that data and what should be done for your product.

Your role as a manager is to empower them to make those choices. Question those choices, punch holes in the theory to make sure it stands up to the rigor of scrutiny, but above all else, be supportive.

People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.

You’ve probably heard this before and for good reason: it’s true. Why do people leave managers? Because they micromanage others.

Because they don’t listen to their direct reports. Because they see their own team as a means to their end of getting promoted and getting more power.

These are the absolute worst people to be managers and I’ve unfortunately had the experience of reporting to several.

What did I do? I did the opposite of the bad examples of management I had above me and tried my best to care for the person. “I miss when you would come to my desk and tell me to GO HOME,” one of my former employees told me a couple weeks ago.

This warmed my heart. Because I was always telling this particular person to make sure that they got enough sleep and had a good balance between work and the rest of their life. Caring for the person first makes the rest of managing them easier because they know you have their back.

On the other hand, there are also situations to be dealt with on the official side of managing such as Performance Reviews, disciplinary measures, hiring, firing, and attrition. The official side always involves HR and adhering to corporate policy.

HR and Management

The HR side of managing is probably the most difficult aspect of being a manager. Human Resources is there to protect the company-NOT to protect you or your direct report as an individual.

Those policies and procedures, yes, they are important and you have to follow them, and yes, the consequences are real.

I’m talking about all the interpersonal issues that can happen when people interact with other people: this person is complaining about this other person or this person did this thing that made someone upset.

We all have problems and we all go through difficult times. But when you manage others, their problem becomes your problem! And it can be difficult to make sure that their problem doesn’t spill over onto your team.

Promotions and other hard choices

When you’re managing others, sometimes that means that you have to make hard choices such as which of your employees should be promoted and then justify why they should be promoted instead of someone else.

Sometimes that someone else is one of your employees or even someone that works in a different discipline. It’s really difficult.

You have to be objective and point towards specific outcomes-things the person did or didn’t do-that enabled their success. Then demonstrate that success. Or use data to prove that your person did a better job than someone else, when really, they are both deserving.


As a manager you also have to learn how to give a hard messages, or “Feedback” about how something was accomplished. Sometimes, that’s a message that you don’t even agree with! And you still have to give the message. And be proactive and constructive and compassionate while you’re doing it. And take the blame for it when your employee doesn’t like the message. Even when it’s not your message in the first place.

“You thought you did this well, but here’s how it could be better…” when it missed the mark. Or, “We need to work together to make sure that you deliver at the level that’s expected so that you’re set up for success,” which is a nice way of saying, “performance plan” which really means that you messed up and my new job is to ensure that you “get back on track.”

As a manager, you are there to support your employees through everything they go through. Through doing things well and through their mistakes.


Management challenges come from times of change (aka reorgs). In large companies, things will change and you often have no control over it. Projects get cancelled or there are shifts in org strategy and suddenly, you have to reorganize your team around the new goals. It may not always make sense to you, especially if you don’t have all the information about what’s really going on.

The most difficult challenges that I’ve had as a leader are to find the best way to communicate these changes when I don’t agree with them. You have to communicate them in a way of, “Let’s find something that’s going to work for everyone because here’s what’s going on.”

It’s important to have empathy for each person who’s affected and do your best to keep listening to everyone’s feelings.

Ethical Considerations

As a manager, you will also come across ethical situations that will require you to respond. Some of these situations have HR policies associated with them while others will not. The employee Code of Conduct can help, but the exact situation may be nebulous and there might not be a clear answer. Here are just a few examples that I’ve experienced:

  • Someone talks over someone else during a large team meeting, throws someone else under the bus, or takes credit for someone else’s ideas: this isn’t specifically dictated by an HR policy, but you should speak up about this kind of inappropriate behavior
  • Someone threatens harm to themselves or to someone else: this one is super clear, you have to report this to HR and/or a mental health professional immediately
  • Obscuring or “massaging” data in order to prove a point to the VP: this is more of an ethical concern for a Researcher regarding accurately reporting data that you’ve collected-there isn’t specifically an HR policy about it, but you should speak up if you see this happen
  • You’re doing in-home research and feel uncomfortable with the participant’s home environment: leave immediately and don’t put yourself or anyone else at risk, then report the situation to HR immediately
  • You’re doing in-home research and there are children you fear aren’t being properly cared for: there isn’t an HR policy on what to do, but this is where your personal ethics have to take over to decide to report the situation to Child Protective Services
  • You see someone taking unnecessary work trips and wonder why they are always gone: there are typically policies about work travel and what reasons are appropriate, when in doubt, speak up

When you see unethical behavior that doesn’t align with your personal or company values, it’s your responsibility to take action. Sometimes this means reporting the situation to HR and it may even involve an investigation. This process can take time and be emotional for everyone involved. Doing the right thing is hard and when you’re a manager, these kinds of situations will come up unexpectedly and your personal ethics will be tested.

It takes courage to speak up when you or someone else is being treated unfairly, but you’ll be glad that you did. It’s unfortunately far too common how mean people can be towards each other. In my slew of bad managers, I’ve had two that were fired for their unethical and discriminatory behavior, while others continue the cycle of hostility and psychological trauma on others.

The problems you deal with as a manager are human problems. Even though you want everyone to be happy and just get along, the reality is that doesn’t always happen. So, it’s in those times of uncertainty and conflict that it becomes important to acknowledge when people and situations are difficult, but also to use it as a way to bring the team back together. It’s Leadership that will help you do this.

Managing the Team: Leadership

Bringing people together around a common goal is a key to being a Leader. Leadership isn’t about reporting structure, HR, or dealing with individual personalities. As a leader, you’re tasked with seeing the future while standing on the shoulders of giants.

The progression from Walkman to the iPod makes sense in retrospect, but at the time, the creation of the iPod was the adjacent possible-the recombination of ideas that allow you to design what’s next and then to inspire others to join you in that quest.

Leadership is the way we look towards the future and bring others along with us. You need to show new possibilities-new ways of thinking and being. You have to inspire you team and show them how things can be different and better. Paint that vision for them and they will come along with you.

Leaders acknowledge and accept people for who they are where they are at. Leaders see each person’s ability to contribute in different ways. Leaders are supportive of the process and know not to get in the way.

There is a delicate balance between how much you set the course and how much you allow for other’s freedom to choose how to get there. You set the goal and the vision, and then let others figure out the details on how to get there.

If you’re too directive, you become a micromanager.
If you’re not painting a clear vision, your team will go astray and you’ll have to guide them back.

The challenges that you will go through as a leader are typically when one of these two scenarios occur.

Leading without Managing

Can you be a leader without being a manager? Yes, absolutely.

I didn’t use to believe this was true, but I was wrong. If you are an Individual Contributor without the title of “Manager:” give yourself permission to be a Leader. No one can give that to you. You have to give that to yourself.

Give yourself permission to be a leader, and you will be.

Do your craft well so that you can have the confidence in yourself to know that these aren’t just ideas, they are based on you doing your craft well as a researcher. It’s doing research well that proves why your ideas make sense. Recognize that you have valid ideas that you want to see to fruition and that you need others to go along the journey with you. If you’ve done this, you’ve already become a leader.

Are you considering management?

It may not be exactly what you expect! I hope this has helped you explore the different facets of management and leadership in a way that helps you evaluate what you want in your career.

My first question to reflect on is why you want to be a manager. If your answer involves power, influence, or recognition, these are not the right reasons to become a manager. Management is about coaching others, dealing with issues that arise from difficult situations and in all things, acting ethically and responsibly.

Many of the same skills of being a good researcher help you become a good manager: listening to others and being empathetic. Of course, your job will change, and you have to be ready for that.

The best way to become a Manager is to already be a Leader. And you can do that right now, without the management reporting structure. Successful managers have to be leaders first.

And only you can give yourself that gift.


Created by

Josh LaMar







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