Do you hate your boss?
Alert the media: This is not a rant! It's is a rather long winded* reflection on the nature of management, the good the bad and the ugly of it. If you're already thinking what "good" can possibly be attached to management, then go away, since you're probably too busy seeing the beam in somebody else's eye. OK, this sounded rant-y.
* Yeah, it's long. You know how I've lost patience with making it acceptably short. OK, this sounded rant-y, too.
Boss – Popular way to refer to the person who has the capacity to tell you what to do.
Manager – Corporate way to refer to the person who has the capacity to tell you what to do.
Leader – This, traditionally, applied to visionaries, individuals with the capacity not only to tell you what to do, but have you wanting to do that just the same. This has been incorporated in today's corporate culture to refer to managers, it's not chic anymore to be a manager, one has to be a leader!
All the same, they're the person who's immediately higher up in the ladder.
Bosses in Pop Culture
I don't think I can find a more diminished, despised, and outright hated professional position than being a boss. There are professions that are despised at large, that don't garner much if any respect from the general public (I'll avoid naming any, fill in the blanks here with your active imagination), but in terms of positions, being a boss is probably number 1 when it comes to being frowned upon.
I think the reasons for that don't originate anywhere near the XXI century. It dates back to the beginning of days, when being a "boss" (read here king, landlord, patriarch, pope, whatever) meant absolute power and absolute capacity to decide over other people's lives.
The attributes of a boss today aren't quite as savage, but there is still a smell of foul play in the air. Bosses can and will do as they please to subdue the people that report to them. Sadly, the smell is there because there actually are bosses who behave just like this. They contribute to perpetuate the myth of absolutism and unfairness that has half the world's population spitting out the word "boss" as if it were an insult.
This brand of bosses is, however, and thankfully, decreasing in numbers as we speak. I believe there are two primary reasons for this:
1) In the midst of corporate politics and plain political correctness, the concept of performance and success have evolved over the years. In today's sophisticated landscape where personal worth is chief, jerks and dickheads and other varieties of sociopaths don't have it easy to get a promotion or come out on top of an executive interview, unless in an environment where the top ranks are other similar brands of sociopaths.
2) Pop culture may not be privy to it just yet, but corporate culture has decided (in its largesse) that the new brand of "employees with power" won't be just managers anymore, they will be leaders! So it's difficult for the traditional, selfish, absolutist, blame-everyone-but-me, do-as-I-say-don't-dare-to-question-me ideal of toxic bosses to get around under this new corporate order.
Corporate culture didn't change tactics because everyone suddenly realized and felt ashamed of their tarnished ways. It changed because they saw the benefits they could reap by doing so: Humanity and sensitivity have much better chances of extracting the best out of employees than plain subduing them.
So, in this new landscape we find ourselves having to be leaders, exemplary individuals that provide vision and create devotion. Evidently, you surmise that I'm not a great supporter of managers being indiscriminately called "leaders". I'm not, because it's a mirage.
Some managers are leaders and some aren't. The same way that some individual contributors are leaders with a class that none of their managers will ever possess. They have an authority that will grant them respect to guide the way without having to resort to power to enforce any kind of behavior.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that all managers are bad. We are, primarily, a necessary evil. I know, some are just plain evil, but aren't there black sheep in all congregations?
THE GOOD MANAGER
In spite of the joke above, yes, there is such a thing as a good manager. To be frank, in my experience navigating the corporate universe, I've actually crossed paths with more good managers than bad ones, it's just that the noise and the bad taste left in our collective mouth by a bad manager tends to last more than the sweetness left by a good one.
We all remember the negative "boss experiences" more than the positive ones. That's a basic survival trait –preserving our knowledge about harmful situations to avoid them in future. Except it's not always possible to avoid toxic bosses in the workplace.
In corporate speech, and in general terms, a manager is good when they do well in their two primary functions: 1. Deliver results, and 2. Keep their staff motivated while doing so, so that they keep doing it. In pop speech, however, there is another ingredient to being a good manager: Be a good person.
I'm not being facetious about this. In pop culture, it's just not good enough to deliver and motivate, one needs to prove oneself as a person. I can understand that, even if it's not in the job description. It's only natural that employees need to feel respect for the person that's dictating how things should be done, it's very difficult that people keep it up if they don't, in a manner of speaking, "look up" to their manager.
Case in Point
Think of adolescents growing up and ceasing to look up to their parents as the know-it-alls and save-all-days. That's when problems usually start, because kids start having their own opinion and just push their parents off their up-to-then untouchable pedestals.
Now translate that to the workplace, and think of a group of adults where one is, virtually, the "parent". How is that going to work smoothly unless by sheer respect, not only for the stripes on the manager's shoulder, but also for the manager as a person? And vice versa, evidently.
There are tricks of the trade to be or to become a good manager, but one also has to be aware that not all "tricks" work with all employees. Different personalities need different approaches.
Some approaches will be frowned upon in some companies, like being too chummy with the staff, and other approaches will only work for so long, like communicating managerial information to one's team. One of them will blabber it somewhere and you'll be in big trouble and won't ever again utter another word, communication be damned.
Still, here is some good, common sense advice on traits that will generally work in favor of becoming or being considered a good manager:
- 10 Traits of a Good Boss, by RGraf
I can add integrity as number 0 to this list of 10 traits, but most of all, I will add my own golden principle: Do undo others as you would have others do unto you. If you go back to review the list of 10 traits described by above, you'll realize there is a common theme in most: consideration and respect.
Assertiveness and Authority
Treating your staff with respect and consideration practically ensures you'll get the same treatment in return, and won't be called a dickhead boss behind your back. Although Ms. Consideration and Mr. Respect won't get the work done by themselves, they will lend a very supportive hand and will contribute to create a friendly and human atmosphere that will facilitate that work gets done, and well at that.
Going back to adolescents and parents, there is another trait that makes one a good manager –it's rather unpopular and you won't find many articles listing it as a "good" quality, but it really is a fundamental trait of the good manager: Being assertive or authoritarian when the situation calls for it.
A good manager will have the guts to say "no" and explain why. A good manager will be controversial and questioning and won't just accept what's thrown upon him by circumstances or team members. A good manager will step in and stop discussion when the topic has been beaten to death and prolonging it is just plain killing time. A good manager will impose the direction of a project when the project suffers the risk of falling apart because team members can't reach an agreement.
Assertiveness or authority, when called for, are fabulous qualities, and I haven't yet met a good manager that didn't possess them.
THE BAD MANAGER
Much, and nothing much good, is said about bosses. Search the web, search Hubpages, or don't search anything at all and simply go to your better half, your friends or your neighbors, and tell me how many of them praise their bosses as opposed to tearing them apart, and how many wouldn't punch their bosses in the nose given half the chance.
I find it quite unfair, mediocre, and often bordering on stupid when I see so many reproaching comments about managers, mostly because I hardly ever see anything along the same lines about non-managers. It looks to me like it's easy to see the mote in somebody else's eye and not the beam in one's own...
It's all too easy to criticize behaviors of others, but entirely too complicated to see our own questionable ways. Here's a news flash: For every toxic boss that you cross paths with, there is a toxic employee making everyone's life miserable.
Toxic is as Toxic does
After over 20 years living the corporate life, I can say that not all bosses are toxic, manipulative, conniving, deceitful corporate climbers, and most certainly not all employees are such a thing, but hey, toxic people exist in all capacities. And, if you think about it, toxic bosses were actually toxic employees without stripes at some point, so there you go.
Every time I read about bad bosses I can't help but think of bad employees. I'd rather not, honestly, but please, let's call a spade a spade. Being a jerk is not a trait attached to management, it's a trait attached to humankind. One can be a jerk regardless of the position they occupy in the organization.
Toxic Managers and Power
To some managers, it's all about the power. They'd like to have it to use it for their benefit, or because they think the title will look flashier on a business card, or because they are so small and insecure as individuals that they need to feel their identities reinforced with nominal power.
Whatever drives these people, in my experience three things tend to happen when they actually have some measure of power:
- First, they immediately get to work with bad attitude and bad manners, intoxicating their environments and their teams, and thus perpetuating pop culture's idea that bosses are evil.
- Second, they get pissed off because what they thought would be absolute power to make all calls is actually not as simple nor as easy, they need to negotiate and they still have bosses of their own who will likely keep then in line.
- Third, they become even more toxic because they realize they have nominal power but they never garner any respect, just fear in some cases, and plain rejection in most.
Once this vicious circle is in motion, it's very complex to revert it. Toxic managers tend to be toxic through their careers. Reminder: Toxic managers are also toxic employees –unless they are the owners of their own company. Then they are plain toxic.
THE NEW LINGO: LEADER
Why is it now so fashionable to call managers "leaders"? I suppose it's part of the new millennium corporate culture tactics, where values such as personal worth and excellence are the icons to adore. I suppose "manager" just falls short of projecting the image of an individual that single-handedly pulls the chariots of success and achievement in the organization. As if managers (or leaders, for that matter) did that anyway.
Traditionally, in pop culture, leader applies to visionaries, individuals that you'll want to follow because they project larger than life ideals that you can't help but want to imitate or make your own.
Leaders are individuals with the capacity not to tell you what to do, but to have you wanting to do that just the same. I think this has been incorporated in today's corporate culture to project the idea that managers should be people to follow. Or is it to make managers think they should be followed? Oh, I don't know, I just feel funny about the whole leadership thing.
The Chic-ness Factor
The "manager as leader" concept is rather contagious –it's a lot more chic to be referred to as a leader than just plain manager, never mind boss! The thing is, obviously, not all managers are leaders, only a small proportion of them are, pretty much the same proportion you'd find in non-managerial positions.
Discussion abounds on the matter of leadership qualities being innate or acquirable through training and practice. I subscribe to the innate school, when I think of recognized leaders I believe they were pretty much born that way. They can learn to be better leaders, and they can learn to use their innate qualities to influence the outcome, but it's quite unheard of in my experience that someone suddenly becomes a leader to the masses, teams, whatever.
Leader is as Leader does
When one observes leaders that became managers, or chief executive officers, or owners of their own businesses, or presidents, one can see that they were leaders way before becoming any of these things.
I also observe employees in the workplace that don't have any nominal power, and don't aspire to have any either, but can and will move corporate mountains with their leadership qualities.
These people have an aura about them that can't be learned, one has it or just doesn't. So, in short, I think it's a delusional stretch of the language to equate manager to leader in many of the contexts I've seen it applied.
What's true is that one can be a leader sometimes, in some contexts. You'll occasionally find yourself speaking with conviction and passion and you'll be able to communicate a vision and make it shared across the team, you'll feel that you are transmitting enthusiasm for a common goal, and your team will "follow" you as if you were about to part the Red Sea.
In those moments, you are being a leader whether you are the boss or not. It's an incredible high, but these moments aren't a given, mostly because passion and absolute conviction aren't such common occurrences in corporateland, and even when they occur, you still need to be able to share them with your colleagues.
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