one complaint about bosses that doesn’t hold water

Evil HR Lady is so good that I want to link to everything she writes, but I don’t because that would be ridiculous.  However, sometimes I cannot resist.

In her BNET column today, she answers a question from someone frustrated that she keeps getting poor performance evaluations and can’t get promoted. The entire thing is excellent, but one piece jumped out to me in particular. In response to the letter-writer’s mention that she trained her bosses when they started (which she was citing as evidence that she’s doing a good job), Evil HR Lady wrote:

“I’ve never had a job where I didn’t know more about my area of focus than my boss did. Even back when my summer job was to stick pictures onto real estate appraisal reports with two sided tape, I knew more about how the pictures were organized than my bosses did. Why? Because that wasn’t their job, it was mine. I’m not trying to brag. As a general rule, this is how it should be. You should be the subject matter expert in your job. Your boss should understand your job enough to do his job, but he’s got a different job to do.”

Yes, yes, yes! I have frequently heard people cite this kind of thing — “I know subject X better than he does!” — as part of their litany of complaints about their boss. I even once heard someone who was complaining about the head of the organization mention that he had never taught her anything about how to use the organization’s database, whereas her coworkers had. (The obvious response to that is, “Good. The problem would be if the CEO was going around teaching people to use a database.”)

There are lots of legitimate reasons to complain about a boss. But this is not one of them.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    Not sure if you just updated your site with some ads, but the overlay of ads on your content is quite annoying. I never hold it against a blog owner when they monetize by putting ads, but when it interferes with using the site properly it's another matter.

    Or perhaps there's something that got hacked between your servers and my browser…

  2. fposte*

    Actually, this is something I really had to grapple with when I started managing, because I initially felt like a slacker if I wasn't as up on my staffers' jobs as they were. So it goes both ways.

  3. Suzanne Lucas*

    Aww, thanks.

    Although, I realize that statement probably is a bit of lie. I'm sure my manager at Burger King could make whoppers just as fast as I could.

    Although, I was definitely the queen of the drive-thru.

  4. Sandrine*

    Very valid points, but in certain industries I would hate having a boss who knows less than I do about a job.

    This would be industries in which you can be promoted "from the bottom" . As in you come in as an employee and can later be a boss.

    I had a job like that once. The boss I had would be mad at me for doing things "the wrong way" when she didn't know what "the right way" was. I think she was promoted because she was someone's niece or something, and I'm quite happy it was a short term contract because the woman drove me nuts.

    Just wanted to share this to add some perspective, because I know this can't apply to all industries :)

  5. Anonymous*

    Sort of to Sandrine's point and since you brought up the "database" example in your post:

    It IS a problem if a boss is relatively unversed in areas that affect their business. And IT is a big one in a lot of places. It is such a part of the process, efficiency and day-to-day of staff yet leaders are often severely under educated on this topic. As with any general business skill, they must know enough to make decisions about who their specialists are and the impact of big decisions. However this is not the same as being the expert!

  6. Anonymous*

    I want to echo Sandrine's point, but I don't think it's necessarily exclusive to the HR Lady's point on the whole. I don't think my manager should ever know the nuances of my role as well as I do; I deal with certain things every day so I'm going to be the expert on the ins and outs of my particular position. However, it is so unbelievably frustrating when your manager doesn't know a marginal amount about your job.

    I think that was particularly present in hospitality (one of those "promote from the ground up" industries Sandrine mentioned). I had a manager who had never worked in a restaurant or catering before and that made my life hell.

  7. Anonymous*

    See, I disagree. It's not so much that bosses should be expected to know EVERYTHING, but if they rely on their subordinates to teach them how to do an essential part of their jobs, they'd better damn well appreciate it in a tangible way.

    Case in point. I once worked for a woman who got regular emails from her boss and had to send back attachments to forms, several times in a day. Not knowing how to use email in this company is like not knowing how to tie your shoes. They did everything through email.

    She literally didn't understand the concept and she kept calling me back to help her navigate her computer, which took away from what I was supposed to do for her and the company. Her bosses weren't going to call or fax her that same information, as it would take more time, not less. Email is supposed to be confidential, so having me open files and attach them for her would have also caused issued.

    So I made her a screen shot tutorial so she would get it. If she had to take a tutorial class from the IT center she would have had to take time during the day to do that which would have severely impacted her workflow because she would have had to commute and she would have been unavailable to make certain decisions. If she had gone to the community college to learn how to the do the same thing, it would have taken her several weeks and cost the company hundreds of dollars, plus it would have cost her in babysitting money because those classes ran after work.

    Now I did this in the interest of my own workflow, and I trained my coworker micromanager in this. But was this appreciated at review time? No. Dumb boss couldn't even come up with a good answer as to what would be above and beyond if that wasn't.

    This was a company that topped out at three percent raises (which keeps pace with inflation) so I was PISSED.

  8. Ask a Manager*

    Okay, playing devil's advocate here, Anonymous: I obviously know nothing about your situation at that job, but let's say for the sake of argument that your primary goal was to sell 15 widgets a day and you consistently fell short of that goal. At review time, while I might note that you had been very helpful in the technophobe boss situation, you still weren't meeting the expectations for your position. The type of thing you're describing does matter and it should get noticed, but it can't trump more fundamental stuff like what the main goals of your job are. (Again, I have no reason to think this was the case with you; this is just to illustrate the larger point of the post.)

    It's also possible that the boss in question was a genius at whatever her primary role was, and so the company didn't really mind that she was clueless about email because it wasn't central to what she was accomplishing there (although certainly very annoying, I'd imagine). I'm betting this wasn't the case in your situation, but this is the type of thing I'm talking about.

  9. Anonymous*

    None of my bosses know exactly what I do from moment to moment to get my work done right. (and I have lots of bosses!) Its my job to get whatever I am supposed to get done, done. And at first it WAS really confusing and frustrating in some ways – I really had to train myself out of telling people what I was doing step by step (some people actually do like that though) because all your manager needs to know is that a) you have taken ownership of your task b) you are going to complete the task c) Whoever is benefitting from you completeing that task is going to be satisfied with what you did. And then if you're struggling getting to one of those three points, you let your manager know what you need from them and why.

    If they knew step by step how to do everything I do (although of course if they had to do it they could dig in and figure it out) then what the heck am I here for?

    And even if you are in an industry where you work your way up from the bottom to the top, your role changes during that time, the technologies and processes change, and you aren't doing that thing every day. You don't expect someone who hasn't done something in 10 years to be just as good at doing it now.

    When I get frustrated because I feel like a manager is interfereing with my ability to do my job (which is actually often becuase I work wiht a serious micromanager) I try to really focus on the things that person does that I don't HAVE to do – politicking, managing up with our somewhat difficult VP, innundating our enemies (I mean coworkers) with so CYA crap that my A is covered too (at least I don't have to do it). I mean when you're workign with a group of people, there are going to be strengths and weaknesses all around. You can't run around insisting that no one is fit to be your manager unless they are exactly the same as you.

  10. Byron J.*

    I guess I'm on the side where the boss/manager should be as knowledgeable as, if not more knowledgeable than the employee. I don't believe there aren't several cases where the opposite is true. However, I just believe that the supervisor not knowing the full extent of what it takes to do "job X" but is able to critique where the employee falls short in doing "job X" is unfair. Yet, I'm not foolish enough to think that this doesn't happen quite frequently in various work settings.

  11. FatBigot*

    Reposting my response on Evil HR Lady:

    The problem is this HR attitude is that you do not need to know about widgets to manage a widget company. As a manager your need to know what people are NOT telling you, perhaps because your reports are reluctant to give bad news. You have to sniff out trends, problems and opportunities before anyone else. Also your task is to assess competing demands for resources, and to assess competing risks that are presented. Often there is no substitute for expert knowledge of the business details when making these decisions.

    This is responsible for the destruction of many businesses.

  12. Anonymous*

    I agree with FatBigot, though I do not endorse either bigotry or obesity.

    Re AaM's remarks:

    it can't trump more fundamental stuff like what the main goals of your job are

    It certainly can't.

    I have worked with supposed management experts in relatively abstract fields such as, for instance, service management. They often flunk even a basic sniff test.

    Example: I once began a conversation with such an expert by asking her to define service management. It did not happen.

    I'm afraid this failure to grasp the essential basics is endemic in the US, too, and it has made the country much worse than it should be.

    Most American voters, having spanked the Democrats two days ago for mismanagement of the economy, could not define
    "the economy" within any notable accuracy.

    Many would simply equate it with stock performance, which, since about April 2009, has generally been spectacular.

  13. Anonymous*

    I worked in a call center once where the head of the call center flat out admitted he had never even worked in a call center before during our training.

    Oh was this ever true. Else, I am sure he would have known that forbidding employees to take their scheduled lunches because there were calls in queue could have gotten him and the call center itself in serious trouble with the local labor board.

  14. Barbara frank*

    Need w2s for 2010 I was given a number I can’t not even get any one too talk to me what do u do to get a hold of some one from HR please can someone. Help

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