Great leaders understand that the transaction defining the employer-employee relationship—the fact that an employer pays you in cash while you cough up your value in sweat and brainwork—is the least important part of your professional relationship. Good managers realize that to get and keep great people, they have to move past the dollars-and-cents transaction and let people own their jobs. Good leaders give people latitude and let them know that their contributions have value. Lousy managers, on the other hand, love to remind employees that it’s all about the transaction: “You work for me.” They never fail to remind team members that someone else would take the job if you ever got sick of it or let the lousy manager down in some way.
This is what a bad manager says when an employee offers an idea he doesn’t like. Maybe the idea threatens the inept manager’s power. Maybe it would require the lousy manager to expend a few brain cells or some political capital within the organization. Either way, “I don’t pay you to think” is the mantra of people who have no business managing teams. It screams, “Do what I tell you to do, and nothing else.” Life is way too short to spend another minute working for someone who could speak these words.
Decent managers have figured out that there is no clock, not for white-collar knowledge workers, anyway. Knowledge workers live, sleep, and eat their jobs. Their e-mail inboxes fill up just as fast after 5:00 p.m. as they do before. Their work is never done, and it’s never going to be done. That’s O.K. Employees get together in the office during the daytime hours to do a lot of the work together, and then they go home and try to live their lives in the small spaces of time remaining. If they need a mental break during the day, they can go on PeopleofWalmart.com or Failblog.org without fear of managerial reprisal. We are not robots. We need to stop and shake off the corporate cobwebs every now and then. If a person is sitting in the corner staring up at the ceiling, you could be watching him daydream—or watching him come up with your next million-dollar product idea. (Or doing both things at once.)
There are certain words that we never use in real life—only in business and only in ways that let us know that the speaker is shining us on, bigtime. “I’ll take it under advisement” means “Go away and die, and don’t speak to me again unless I ask you to.” It means “I am not going to do whatever you just suggested that I do, and I want you to know that I value your opinions less than I can tell you.”
My brother worked at a huge tech company, and one day he and his team of Software Quality Assurance folks were meeting at the office before heading to the airport. They gathered at 6 a.m. in a conference room to talk about their plan once they hit the ground in the destination city. The door opened and a manager walked into the conference room. “Who called this meeting?” he asked. “Only a grade level E5 can call a meeting.” My brother left that job a few months later. People who obsess about hierarchy and permission and grade levels and the like are people you’d be better off avoiding, especially in relationships that give them power over your life and career.
Any manager can have a last-minute emergency that pushes everything else out of the way. Good managers pull this move sparingly and only in real crises. Poor managers do it every day, and they never remember the dozen equally critical (at one point in time) priorities they’ve already told you to drop everything else for. A good comeback if your manager has this habit is to answer, “Yes, of course. That’ll push [yesterday’s drop-everything project] to next Thursday—is that fine?”
This chestnut showed up during the era when people were beginning to think about business process and realizing that employees could often solve their day-to-day problems in the moment and on the ground, rather than having to go upstairs to get help. That’s O.K., but too many managers have reinterpreted “Bring me solutions, not problems” as “Don’t complain—shut up and deal with it.” The fact is, business processes and organizations are complicated today, and often the employee who spots a problem doesn’t have the information she or he needs to solve it. That’s where a manager can help, if he or she is oriented that way. Managers who say, “Bring me solutions” are often really saying, “Stop telling me what I don’t want to hear.” Working for a person like that will shorten your lifespan.
One of the worst situations I ever encountered as a corporate HR leader involved an employee who went off the rails on a business trip for a Las Vegas customer event. I heard through the grapevine that two employees assigned to share a hotel room had exchanged heated words. On investigating, I learned that the hot mess of an employee had gotten drunk in Las Vegas and showed up (still drunk) in her hotel room with her (also drunk) cabdriver/instant boyfriend in tow. I was horrified on a million levels and virtually ran to her manager’s office to talk once the trip was concluded. “How are we going to deal with this?” I asked him. “Oh, it’s O.K.,” he said, “I told the two young ladies to sort it out between then.” “But—but,” I sputtered, “our employee got drunk and disorderly, was nearly arrested in the hotel, brought a drunk stranger into her shared hotel room, and wouldn’t leave when her co-worker protested. The poor marketing gal had to call another co-worker and switch rooms at four in the morning!” “I know,” said her manager, “and I think there’s a lesson there in how to work harmoniously on a team. I’ve asked the two women to have lunch and talk about it.” That didn’t happen, because we fired Ms. Unruly the same day. If your manager can’t see misbehavior and snuff it out, you have a problem.
Good managers give their employees feedback when it’s warranted, and they try to emphasize and reinforce the good things. Bad managers don’t give praise, but they ladle on the criticism, and the really bad ones add an extra twist of meanness: They say, “Everyone here feels the same way.” Pretty soon, you start to feel that you can’t trust anyone in your shop and that everyone hates you—until a co-worker mentions that your lousy manager said the same thing to her. Poor managers need to throw in a few dozen extra “votes” with their barbs, just to keep employees off guard. A true leader would talk about conflict or performance issues regularly in staff meetings, resolving whatever is at issue without passing along anonymous jabs.
The funniest thing about a manager who would open his mouth and say, “You’re lucky to have a job at all” is that these managers never seem to think they’re lucky to be working—just everyone else. “You’re lucky to have a job at all” in an era of more than 9 percent unemployment is the same as saying, “I can’t believe you manage to stay in that 90 percent of the population that is working.” It’s a huge insult, but worse, a statement of personal failure on the manager’s part. People who live in fear don’t tend to see the potential in themselves, or in others. If your manager’s native mode is critical, and if she tosses around compliments like manhole covers, know that there are plenty of other employers who’d be happy to have someone like you in the mix.