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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pal, Parent, Partner, Project Manager

      A few months into my first real job, Anna Marie and I tied the knot. Because of my zero seniority, the system grudgingly allowed a long weekend off to honor the occasion.
    Then, two days before the wedding, my boss the managing editor had an epiphany right there in the middle of the newsroom. He announced that such an important occasion certainly called for more than an extra day off or two. On the spot, I was granted a full week for a honeymoon . . . too late to do much planning for use of the generous gift.
     A little later, a similar act of largesse marked the birth of our first child: I got a raise. Nothing to do with the value of my work. Just the man showing kindness to the kid who now would need a few more bucks.
     It may or may not come as a surprise, but a somewhat bumpy tenure at that place ended very badly for me after a few years.
     That manager was acting on a philosophy that was flawed and destructive. Days off and pay increases are not acts of generosity.

     And the boss is not my buddy. Not my Mommy either, not my Daddy.
     That’s obvious, at least for most of us.  What’s not so obvious is why so many of us seem to respond in the workplace with expectations – and resentments – similar to those we have for our friends and family.
     We can be bitterly resentful of the manager who won’t listen, who unfairly favors someone else on the staff, who takes us for granted. There’s nothing we can do because he/she is The Boss.
      You know, if I was supposed to be grateful to the boss for the wedding and childbirth gifts, I failed in that responsibility. And, as the relationship developed, I learned that decisions and acts of discipline could be extremely unpredictable, and often personal and vindictive. You couldn’t trust the man.
     Adding to the syndrome, a coterie of cowed senior staff members eventually formed a compliant, silent chorus that could be gathered on short notice to line the back of the room when someone was to be summoned for kangaroo proceedings.

     That was my introduction to dysfunction in the workplace, and I have only once personally experienced or witnessed anything quite so extreme in the ensuing decades. But, as a consultant, I catch glimpses of familiar facial expressions, hear stories and see evidence. It’s there to some extent, maybe in more organizations than not.
     When I was subject to the management practices described above, I didn’t do enough of the right kind of thinking.
     Well, I didn’t refuse the honeymoon days all those years ago. And I didn’t turn down the birth-of-the-baby raise. Should I have? No. If you work there, you play by the rules they have there.
     On the other hand, should I have understood that what is freely given can be easily withdrawn? Sure, but I just gave a mental shrug, took the gifts and moved on. Mature reflection would have told me that a place managed by personal whim is no place for an idealistic young professional.
     I wasted too many years in that operation.

     Each manager has his/her own way of doing business, and there is an infinite variety of combination goods and not-so-goods in management styles.
     In a previous post, I urged the thoughtful person, regardless of position, to be alert and thoughtful to just exactly how a particular manager can be expected to behave. (“A Project: Rating Managers” http://jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com/2014/05/a-project-rating-managers.html.)
     So what do you do about it?
     Well, just as good managers should get to know each of their staff people, and should tailor the relationship to account for the person’s professional and personal characteristics, so should everyone get to know his/her boss thoroughly.
     You want to know expectations and communication style, of course. What does she/he want from me, what is the best way for me to respond, offer ideas, solve problems?
     Beyond those working matters of communication, though, you want to know what makes this person tick. You want to understand the values, goals, interests that underlie behavior in the workplace.

     I read once about a couple of people who worked for a real bear of a boss. The man was a tyrant, capable of great anger and real cruelty in treatment of people when he was displeased. Everybody in the place quaked at the sight of him, and did everything they could to stay out of his way.
     These two guys decided they were going to take assertive action in their own behalf. They studied how the difficult manager functioned in various situations. They decided that the root problem was the man’s fear of mistakes, of looking bad to his own peers and superiors.
     He was too insecure to trust his people to not embarrass him, and his overreaction was aggravated further by their furtive actions when he was around, and their occasional outbursts when he admonished them.
     The two who wanted to succeed in this situation came up with a strategy. Their goal would be to reassure their boss, in effect taking the opposite end of the relationship we usually expect. We want our manager to be the one going beyond halfway in supportive behavior.
     So they disciplined themselves to suppress their feelings when they were unfairly criticized, nodded pleasantly and uttered positive sounds as they were being lectured. They made it their business to turn in results that exactly met directives, however better their own ideas might have been.

     Without overdoing it, they made sure to always act in pleasant and respectful ways around the boss. No matter how irritating and/or pompous he might be on occasion.
     It worked.
     Gradually, the insecure boss came to trust them. He wasn’t stupid, and he knew he wasn’t doing a terribly good job. He sought their advice more and more often, and quite frequently followed it. Of course, he took credit for all their good ideas, but they had expected that.
     While their colleagues looked askance at the undeserved respect they were displaying toward this incompetent, everybody was pleased as the heat eased up on them.
     The two presumably went on to successful careers, using their sophisticated understanding and skills to outperform everybody else.
     They understood. You don’t look to the boss to take care of you. You don’t have to love the person. You get clear on what you want, what it will take to get it, here and with these people. You decide whether you want to pay the price. If you do, you go in all the way. If you don’t, you’re on your way.
     This is not friendship and it’s not family. It’s business. The boss, warts and all, is a partner. It’s your career, and you’re the manager of that project.
     Sometimes I wish I’d been that perceptive at their age. I may actually be working for those two guys right now. 

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