I Just Work Here
July 25, 2011
A long time ago, a caveman went up to another caveman and said: "I'll give you some of my woolly mammoth meat if you move these rocks for me."
The first boss was born.
Later that night, the rock-moving employee went back to his cave and painted pictures on the wall depicting his boss as both evil and a bit skimpy with the mammoth-meat salary.
The first boss-hating employee was born.
The point of this story, which any paleontologist will tell you is 100 percent true, is that the "my boss is the enemy" narrative has been around since the invention of the workplace. This past week did little to bat down that narrative, as the world learned of the detestable phone-hacking perpetrated under News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch and watched the mogul casually throw his deputies under the bus before the British Parliament.
Asked if he was responsible for the phone-hacking "fiasco," Mr. Murdoch said, "No." Asked who is responsible, he said, "The people I trusted. And the people they trusted."
Those are some textbook evil-boss moves.
But of course, Murdoch's display wasn't necessary to give bosses a bad name. According to a report released last year by the Conference Board research group, about half of U.S. employees are dissatisfied with their bosses, up from 40 percent a couple decades ago.
Rather than focus on the now-cliche descriptions of how horrible our overlords are, let's examine ways bosses and managers can become less loathed.
As I started researching this, I saw a tweet from a reader in Boston upset because she had just fired someone. This sounded to me like a good, empathetic human being/boss, so I reached out to her and we spoke by phone about what it's like being in charge.
"Today I had to explain to everyone why this person was terminated," said Julie, who works for a health care company and oversees eight employees. "It puts people on edge. I empathize with them, but I also have to say, 'This is the way it is.'"
She talked about how frustrating it can be that the relationship between a boss and employees is almost reflexively oppositional.
"Sometimes I want to give people positive feedback, but I'm afraid I'll sound like a jerk somehow," she said. "It can be awkward to make sure it comes across as sincere. I try to be as specific as I can when I praise someone. I want them to know I mean it."
Julie said she gives her employees flexible work schedules, arranges group lunches every Friday and tries "to make a work environment that's fun enough and enjoyable enough that it balances" out any negatives.
According to David Silverman, author of the "Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars" and a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, Julie is going about the boss business the right way.
"The No. 1 thing to do as a boss is to not believe your employees are stupid," he said. "If you believe that, it will become true. They will think to the level of your expectations. You have to rely on them. You have to be willing to let them make mistakes, and you have to let them have a voice."
Another key: consistency.
"Don't appear to be random," said Silverman, who's also an executive at a major U.S. company. "If you say on Monday that a document has to be ready the following Thursday, don't turn around on Tuesday and ask where it is. If something changes in the deadline, explain that. If you can't be consistent, then you need to be transparent about why something has changed."
What I like so much about Silverman's advice is that it's pragmatic and concrete. He's not spouting B.S. about team building or casual Fridays or pep talks. He's suggesting that people in charge remember what it was like when they weren't in charge, treat the people under them with respect and use some basic interpersonal skills.
"Remember the things you wanted when you were an employee, what it took to get you motivated, the feeling of ownership and participation that you wanted to have," Silverman said. "It's very good to let people play to their strengths and let them know what kinds of tasks you're going to be giving them. Say, 'You're a good writer, we're going to give you the writing tasks. You have the tech skills, we're going to have you run the website.' Make sure they don't all feel like the same cogs in the same wheel."
Jill Morris, co-author of the book "Please Fire Me: Posts from the Revolting Workplace," recently co-wrote a piece for The Huffington Post detailing seven types of bad bosses. They are: The Anal Nitpicker; The Idiot; The Unreformed Scrooge; The Remorseless Creep; The All-Powerful; The Chickenhawk; and The Lame Eccentric.
The Chickenhawk category evolved from a submission on Morris' workplace-gripe website, PleaseFireMe.com: "After receiving a bomb threat and evacuating the premises our boss came back with a list of names (mine was one) of people who should go back in and search the premises for 'suspicious items.'"
"A lot of employees already feel useless, they feel unnoticed or worthless," Morris said. "With that bomb threat one, the boss was basically saying, 'That's how invaluable you are to me.'"
Morris believes the caricature of the boss as a horned demon who devours workers' souls — or something like that — can be erased through reasonably simple steps: communicate better; don't act like your time is far more important than that of your workers; don't have "a shriveled little gray heart."
Silverman said the key is to be mindful, each and every day, of how you're handling people.
"It's not like you just do all these things and you establish this good relationship," he said. "You have to keep doing it because the natural inertia is for people to fall into these negative roles. It's built on trust and action. What you did last week doesn't matter. If you treat someone like dirt this week, that's what they'll remember."
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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