transcript of “Do I Like Bad Bosses?” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 6)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast, episode 6: “Do I Like Bad Bosses?”.

Alison: We have a really interesting letter this week from someone who has found that she responds differently to her managers than most of her peers do, and she’s wondering if that might mean something about her. So welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, how are you?

Alison: Good. Thanks so much for coming on.

Guest: Thank you for having me.

Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent into me and then we’ll talk about it.

Guest: I have found myself in this situation a few times. I find myself in a new position and I begin to get settled. I enjoy my boss and I developed relationships with coworkers. However, it eventually becomes apparent to me that my coworkers really resent my boss during certain situations and some can be nit-picky, but I can totally see my boss’ point of view. Even when I stick around for a while, it doesn’t dissipate. The coworkers develop more disrespect for the boss and I am left biting my tongue in defence of her. My real question is, is this an indication that I like not great bosses? In general, the resentment results from accountability issues. I always tend to be a stickler for, “Well, those are the parameters so we should do them.” I try to keep things common sense and I try to push back when things don’t make practical sense, but when I eventually become the big boss, I want to have a productive team and not one that resents me. Am I going to be a bad boss?

Alison: This is such an interesting question. Can I ask you some questions first? How far into your career are you?

Guest: I graduated about four years ago.

Alison: And your coworkers who complain about your bosses, are they experienced professionals or are they more on the less professionally experienced side?

Guest: At the moment I have two jobs, and in my full time one where I’m experiencing this, the coworkers are my direct boss who is a senior manager and has been with the company for about ten years. And then my peer, who is the assistant for the department. She and I are pretty much on the same level and same age, mid-twenties. And in my part-time job where I also experience this a little bit, it’s designed to be a part time job. So all of us are various ages and really across the spectrum on professional experience.

Alison: That’s fascinating because if you had said that they were all pretty inexperienced, I was going to say, “Well, that’s probably what it’s about.” That they don’t have a really clear idea yet of where the parameters are of what you can expect from a boss. But it sounds like that’s not the case, that there’s more variety than that. So let’s get more specific about the kinds of complaints that they have about your managers. You said that the resentment is usually around the boss trying to hold them accountable in some way. Can you give me an example or two of the kinds of things that they’ve seen differently than you?

Guest: Sure. For instance, in my full-time job, we’re in a really busy part of the year right now and so we’re having a lot of preparation-type meetings where we’re setting exact action items and then following up on them the week after that. But I sit through these same meetings that both of my coworkers do and afterwards, when it’s just us together – and we’re all pretty friendly with one another – they start talking about how it grated on them the way that our boss spoke to them, the way that our boss had the action items delivered to them. I feel like they think that she’s giving them too much or following up in a way that’s overbearing and I didn’t see that in the meeting.

Alison: And do you think it’s more about following up on action items, which is such a normal thing for her to be doing? Or do you think some of it could be about tone?

Guest: I think that some can be about tone, but I think that a lot of it is about action items. A lot of the comments that I’ve gotten – like one time, the one comment that I heard about tone was our boss would be giving a meeting with other people. And afterward I had been thinking to myself, “Man, she was doing pretty good in that meeting, she was being really clear.” And then my coworker said, “I just rolled my eyes at the other person next to me and said, ‘I can not with her right now’.” (Laughs)

Alison: Wow, okay. What you’re describing is pretty normal. It’s hard to effectively run a team without having those sorts of meetings and doing that kind of follow up and that kind of delegating. There are some people who really bristle at being held accountable, and sometimes that’s from inexperience, or sometimes it’s that they’re not really great at their work and so they’re running into the consequences of that more often. Sometimes there are people who just don’t really deal well with having a boss and I do think some fields attract those people more than others. So it’s possible that that’s what you’re running into. I will say, it could also be that you’ve had managers who weren’t great at exercising their authority in ways that made people feel respected while still holding them accountable. And if you have bosses who are using their authority in a way that feels tyrannical rather than practical, and without much empathy, it is possible that their actions are reasonable, but their manner put people off. I think it could be either of those.

Guest: I think it might be that last one in this particular instance because maybe I am just more of a person that is focused on what are we going to do and a little bit less on what someone thinks of me because we did this. Because our boss did praise us the other day, all individually for the things that we’ve done for this huge project that we’re in at the moment. But then now that I’m thinking about it, that is the first time this season so far that she has done that.

Alison: So it could be manner. There are a lot of bosses out there whose actions are pretty reasonable, but their way with people is not great. They don’t praise like what you mentioned, or they just have a sort of tyrannical feel to the way that they talk about things, or kind of an edge in their voice, or they can seem kind of abrasive.

That said, I do think that when you become a manager, your perspective on a lot of things changes, and things that used to seem rigid or too controlling previously suddenly make more sense because you’re seeing them from a different perspective. And it is possible that you just already have that perspective while your peers don’t.

When I was thinking about your letter earlier, I was thinking about a time that I knew I was doing something as a manager that was just going to make no sense to the person who was talking to me about it, and I knew that it was going to really irritate her and I knew there was no way I could change that. So, this is a really small thing, but in part it’s because it was a small thing that I think it was so annoying. I’ll tell you the story. A fairly junior staff member had come to me and said that she wanted the office to start giving birthday cards to each person when their birthday came around, and she wanted to be in charge of getting the cards and getting them signed and distributing them. She thought it would be a sort of feel-good initiative for the office, which sounds great in theory, right? I told her no, because what I realized was that it was more involved than she realized. I would have to ensure that she had a system for making sure she wasn’t leaving anyone out, and for adding new hires to the list, and there would have to be some oversight to make sure that we weren’t skipping someone. Because if everyone but one person gets a birthday card from the office, that is a recipe for that person feeling pretty crappy. And I knew she didn’t have the greatest attention to detail. So, what I was seeing was this new project that I was going to have to find time to oversee. I’m telling you the story because I’m sure she thought that I was being an ogre. I mean, who says no to making people’s birthdays happier? But I think it’s an example of how, as a manager you might see a bigger picture than what your staff may see. And you can end up looking kind of jerky to someone who doesn’t fully get it – as I’m sure that I did to her in that situation. There’s lots of other examples too, probably much better examples than the story I just told (laughs).

Guest: That’s really funny timing, actually, that story – because my boss’ boss, the director who my coworkers are having the issue with, just reinstituted that we’re going to have a monthly birthday celebration instead of what we have been doing, which was individual for the management team in the main office. My direct boss, who’s the senior manager had been in charge of doing the birthday thing, and always got people cards and cupcakes and everything. And it was fully in her purview. But the director told her, “I think that we’re not being egalitarian with everyone and so let’s just go to a monthly thing instead of individual.” And that was another eye rolling moment. (Laughs)

Alison: That’s such a funny coincidence. It seems like such a small thing, but actually that is the kind of thing that causes morale problems. I get letters from people sometimes who say, “My office celebrates everyone’s birthday and they’ve forgotten my two years in a row and it doesn’t feel good, should I look for another job?” So small things can actually be bigger. And I think as a manager, you’re kind of charged with looking out for that big picture, but sometimes on the staff side it can be hard to really understand that perspective and sometimes it can cause those misunderstandings. I think it’s really common for people to have gripes about their managers that they wouldn’t have if they better understood how things stand on the manager’s side.

Those are some sort of general thoughts, but let’s bring this back to you. You asked whether liking bosses, who your coworkers don’t is a sign that you like bad bosses or you might be a bad boss. My hunch is no. It sounds like you’re able to see your boss’ perspective on the sorts of things that I just described. And in general, being able to see other people’s perspective is a good thing. The one thing I would watch out for, if at some point you do become a manager yourself, is to just really think about perception. If you’re being reasonable and fair, but everyone you manage thinks you’re being a jerk, that’s obviously a problem. So, to the extent possible you want to explain your reasoning on things. And maybe part of the problem that your bosses have had is that they weren’t being transparent enough about why they were doing the things they were doing, or maybe they didn’t make enough of a point of being willing to listen to other points of view. Even if you don’t ultimately change your mind, hearing people out with an open mind and letting them see that you’re genuinely considering their input will usually help people feel better about your decisions, and maybe that’s not happening with your managers now. Does that resonate with what you’ve seen?

Guest: A little bit, yeah, for sure. Because I’ve always felt more comfortable approaching the director to ask her about things in my program specifically than I think that maybe the other two do. Because sometimes they’re griping about things and I’m like, “Well why don’t you go talk to her?”

Alison: So that is huge, actually. I think that might be a real linchpin of explaining what’s going on here because if something seems off to you, or you think that maybe your boss would make a different decision with more information, or if you’re just kind of confused about something – if you are assertive enough to just talk to your boss like she’s a normal person and ask about it, often you’ll have a much better relationship and you’ll get better results. Because you’ll either get new information that you didn’t have before that makes something makes sense to you, or you’re able to provide new information that your boss didn’t have that she’s been able to incorporate into what she’s doing, or all sorts of other good reasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a key difference between you and the people who are complaining.

It can be hard to know which comes first, because who knows – in theory, maybe they’ve gone to her in the past and they’ve had a bad experience with her and so they’ve given up on doing that, and now they’re just stuck in this rut of complaining. But I’m skeptical that that’s the case, because if you have gone to her and you’ve seen that it’s gone pretty well, that tells me that might be the difference.

Guest: That makes sense. That makes a lot of sense.

Alison: And there are a lot of people, possibly even maybe the majority, who aren’t very forthright with their managers and feel like their boss is not very approachable, and just kind of assume that approaching her wouldn’t be welcomed, and so they just don’t do it. And as a result, they have a worse time at work and maybe a lower quality relationship with their manager.

Guest: That makes a lot of sense. That’s great to hear. I was worried that I would become the unknowing tyrant (laughs).

Alison: I think as long as you feel like your bosses have been reasonably good people, it may be that you just have a more mature perspective on this stuff than your coworkers have. But if you do move into managing at some point, you’ll have had the benefit of this very useful look into how actions can play differently with different audiences. And it can be a nice reminder for you to think about how people might be perceiving something, and to reflect on whether there are ways to let them in on your thinking a little bit more, and to remember, “People might not approach me if they have a question or a concern. I need to really go out of my way to solicit that kind of input.”

Guest: Sure, and to show what my brain is thinking that their brains might not be.

Alison: Exactly. Now all that said, sometimes people just gripe about bosses, and that will probably never change. You just want to make sure that you hire people where that’s pretty rare, as opposed to being their normal mode of operation. Does that help?

Guest: Yeah, for sure. That really makes me feel better.

Alison: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking through this with me.

Guest: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast, produced in conjunction with Penguin Random House and Anchor. If you like what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to podcast@askamanager.org. And check out my new book from Ballantine Books called Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. It hits stores May 1st, and it’s the ultimate guide for tackling any and all workplace dilemmas. You can pre-order a copy today at penguinrandomhouse.com or anywhere books are sold.

Thanks for listening! I’m Alison Green, and I’ll be back next week with another question.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.