The Post Before Time 12/10/19

Editorial note: Today I came across this piece that I had written before I started blogging. I’ve historically written pieces like this when something was on my mind. By writing them down, they could find a new home and leave my mind alone. I thought it was interesting, so I humbly offer it for your consideration.

Are you a boss? By what right?

Tough question, but do you have the courage to read on?

The reality is that most people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. This is fairly common knowledge these days, but what does it really mean? In my previous couple of jobs, I’ve dealt with the wrong kind of bosses. When I say wrong, what I mean are bosses that assume authority based solely on their title. Yes, some higher authority has placed them in a position where they had the right to make decisions, but they never really earned that right either. I’ll talk about the consequences of authority by title only in a moment, but let me take a quick diversion to better explain what I mean.

In one of my previous positions, my immediate supervisor (whose office was in a different building than mine) would periodically say that if I don’t hear from him, that means he’s happy with the job I’m doing. This is a very old-fashioned approach to “leadership” (which I put in quotation marks because I would rather call it bossing since the term leadership really does not apply). How excited to you think I was to hear from him? When he wanted to discuss ideas or new projects, what was my frame of mind when I received a request to meet him in his office? Did I see it as an invitation, or a mandate? Worse than that, because he never worked to develop a relationship with me, when he did start to believe there was a problem, he didn’t know me well enough to believe anything I would say, and didn’t have the observation to judge for himself. I ended up losing my position over ancient issues, exaggerations, half-truths and flat out lies. They, in turn, lost an employee who, in just two years achieved a goal they had had for two decades and many employees in my position before me.

If you boss (used in this case as a verb) based on authority alone, you lose many things. First, you risk losing respect. Lao Tzu wrote (about three thousand years ago in the Tao te Ching) that the best leader is one who is loved, the second best is one who is respected, but the worst is one who is feared. Despite title, to be truly successful as a leader, you need to earn the right of leadership by those who report to you. You cannot earn this respect if you see them as “below” you, even if you only think in terms of rank, and you certainly can’t earn it without putting in effort. Without this earned authority (that is, authority beyond title), you lose a lot more than you gain. Employees who work from fear will lose the will to put in extra effort, and confidence to suggest how to improve processes. Employees who are truly talented are more likely to leave for a position with leaders that make them feel respected, leaving the boss with the worst employees (which was actively occurring with the previously discussed boss). In addition, the boss will likely make poor decisions because those who should be involved are less likely to share information.

So what differentiates a leader (in the truest sense of the word) from a boss? At the risk of irritating any bosses who may be reading this (and why not? They bother their employees), it’s not that difficult to earn the respect of those with whom you work (NOT your “underlings”). Here’s the first really big hint; make them feel appreciated! You cannot make people feel appreciated by sitting in your office. Get out, walk around, talk with them, but never never never hover. I’ve said that the best way to successfully fake respecting people is not to fake it. Recognize, bosses, that you are no more important (and probably far less important) than those who report to you. First of all, they are the ones actually doing the work. In any organization, think about the job that in your mind is the lowest position, and ask yourself, “what would happen if that person wasn’t here.” In my current position, we have an elderly gentleman who runs mail. It’s all he does, and he gets very little respect for it. In a position of higher administration, I stopped and chatted with him one day that he was feeling particularly unappreciated, and I just listened to him. He was chewed out by other employees because they failed to inform him of something they needed (and therefore it was not done) earlier that day. I listened, thanked him for his service and told him I appreciated him. Frankly, if he disappeared tomorrow, communication, even across campus, would grind to a near standstill, especially since other people who think his work is beneath them would find themselves in a position of running those parcels themselves.

Second, walk around and talk with people, all people whether they report to you or not. It sounds like such a trivial thing, but it is so incredibly important. And don’t talk to people because you have a purpose. If you have something specific about which you wish to speak with them, that’s fine, but make sure that a vast majority of the time, it’s just a casual conversation. This accomplishes several things for you. First of all, eventually they learn that just because you’re talking with them, they are not in trouble. They won’t tense up every time you walk around. Secondly, they feel more comfortable sharing things with you because it is in “their turf” (their office, their cubicle, their desk, whatever the case may be). I cannot begin to tell you how much I accomplished from statements made after the opening, “as long as you’re here…”. Finally, you get to know your people as, well, people. People are marvelous; they have things in their lives more important to them than their jobs, they do things and go on great adventures, and they have dreams and aspirations. As you get to know them better, and as they learn that you know them better, they will be more loyal and want to put in that extra effort that a boss will never see.

Third, develop those around you. You are not as talented as you think; take advantage of the skills and aspirations of those around you, and if they leapfrog you and become your boss, then be happy for them, and be sure that they remember that you supported them in their rise. Keep in mind that not everybody as aspirations to rise in their career. In the example I raised earlier, that individual running mail is probably in the perfect position for him (in fact, he said to me that it was). It was a slow pace, made a significant contribution to the institution, and if people ever decide to give him the respect he deserves, he will be a loyal employee for life. On the other hand, a colleague (in a different division) aspired to a leadership position, at the level in which I was employed. I encouraged this, because even though he ended up leaving (which he had to; the odds of him getting the position he wanted there was nearly impossible), he will remain a colleague, and a friend of mine. I know that, wherever he ends up, I will be able to call on him should I ever have the need, and I would be honored to have him call on me.

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