Reality-based management means that you commit to seeing and dealing with reality, as opposed to living in some hazier alternative. Period. That's it. The rest stems naturally from there.
Reality-based management means that when employees come to you with frustrations or complaints, you hear them out with an open mind, even if the complaints are about you. It does not mean getting defensive, angry, or shutting them out. In fact, to the contrary, it means thanking them for coming to you--and really meaning it.
Reality-based management means looking at an overworked department and recognizing that your options are to eliminate some of the work, identify efficiencies, or hire additional staff. It does not mean just vaguely hoping the staff will find a way to get it all done.
Reality-based management means sometimes saying sentences like: "I'd like you to do this differently," or "I'm concerned about something I've noticed recently," or even "If this doesn't change, it could jeopardize your job." It does not mean being dissatisfied with someone's performance but not saying anything because it might be uncomfortable or awkward.
Reality-based management means recognizing when employees may not be the right fit for the job and quickly taking action to change that—either by helping them improve, when possible, or moving them out. It does not mean hoping they'll leave on their own.
Reality-based management means asking if you contributed to the problem after you've had to fire someone. Did you hire the wrong person? Train the person poorly? Fail to communicate what the job really entailed?
Reality-based management means knowing that your organization and/or the jobs you hire for will not be for everyone and that some people will not work out even when you do everything right.
Reality-based management means being honest about what you do and do not have time for and making commitments accordingly. It means doing what you say you will do by the time you say you'll do it.
Reality-based management means recognizing that the people who work for you are human and will sometimes make mistakes, have bad days, have bad weeks, be sensitive, want praise, overreact, and feel frazzled. From time to time, they'll misunderstand you.
Reality-based management means regularly looking at your own shortcomings and being willing to try to change them. It means assuming there are things you do that drive your staff crazy and being interested in learning what those things are.
Reality-based management is astonishingly scarce. If you find a place that practices it, do whatever it takes to work there.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.