Managers Managing

I stood in a foot of snow, more than ankle-deep, waiting for the bus. It was late. In fact, two buses could have come and gone in the time it took one to get to me. Bussing was my only mode of transit. I lived over two miles away from work. I budgeted on the bus getting me to work ten minutes early. Living in a snowy climate, I didn’t consider that the bus would be running late, we were in the middle of winter, so this snow storm should have been part of the norm on the transit agency’s planning part. For all intents and purposes, I had planned ahead, done my due diligence, but life happened. And, I was late for work.

My darling supervisor, who was at least three years younger than me, did what she thought best, “Well, you know it’s your responsibility to make sure you get here on time.”

You could see the internal struggle in her eyes.

She wanted to tug at the compassionate side and say, “Oh my! Yes, that snow storm last night really bogged things down! You don’t have a history of being late, so don’t worry about it. I know you tried your hardest to get here. I bet you will not plan on the transit agency being on time next time, eh?”

But, she deferred to what she thought she ought to say. She decided to reprimand me for weather and my inability to control the uncontrollables.

Here, this younger girl, was attempting to give me life lessons on planning. I think I took it in stride, but this situation shaped my continued thoughts around management and what managers really do. In all my varied experience, my experience with managers has had a slim look. All the managers I’ve dealt with have been more task managers instead of coaches.

I want to meet the coaches. I want to meet the ones who are, as Apple likes to brag, people leaders. People who have their own shit together enough that they can lead by example compassionately.

Sure, we have metrics we need to meet, but we need to balance that with life happening. And, when we are focused on the tasks, and not the people, we relegate our relationships to Boss vs. Employee we might as well say it’s Subordinate and Insubordinate.

I see this play out in ways where managers, instead of complimenting one on all the tasks they have completed, they focus on the incomplete tasks. I see it play out when managers can’t figure out how to straddle the line between boss and wanting to get to know an employee on a deeper level. That is, they find the best practice is to distance themselves from their subordinates to make any possible firing of them easier. You are left with shallow work relationships, which makes any team building exercise futile. By fostering shallow relationships, managers distance themselves from any substantive conversations, which means tackling issues is harder because they haven’t done the work to build trust among their colleagues – only focusing on the trust they have with each other (fellow managers) rather than those they manage. This makes promoting employees to managers even more difficult, because you are asking an employee to change the nature of their relationship with other now former employees. Suddenly, someone who might have asked how your weekend went, and meant it, will only do it shallowly.

An interesting irony is that a few groups, around the town I now call home, have engaged in worker collectives. The idea being that everyone is a manager, because really we are peer-to-peer groups bringing a variety of skills and experience united around a common goal. A few of these collectives have split off, though, and they are left with two teams in the workplace: the original worker collective managing a group of subordinates. Something happened, and they couldn’t support the consensus momentum that got them started. So, they chose to defer to the model we know so well: Boss vs. Employee (Parent vs. Child, Teacher vs. Student).

How do these models, assuming an upper and lower hand, reflect any win-win situations? Playing towards our strengths and having a few people manage the big picture makes sense. But, should they get paid more? How is their job keeping a few people united around a common goal more important than one of their employees engaging directly with the clientele the organization needs to keep business going? Both sets need each other. A manager can’t manage without employees. Employees can be more focused with the right leadership. You don’t become a leader overnight. Leaders need followers. And followers want good examples.

Chester Elton on Good Byes

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