Sunday, October 29, 2006
I am a boss. It would be foolish of me to believe that there aren't some employees in my company who have contempt for decisions I have made or the work that I do. Naturally I think they are wrong and I hope they are relatively few in number, but I am not in so much denial that I believe that such people do not exist. Given enough employees, eventually somebody is going to think that I'm a fool and wonder how it is that they are working for me.
I have never been a boss-hater and that has worked to my advantage. I have never had one that I hated or had contempt for, even when I thought they were wrong about a particular policy or even grand strategy. I can say this even though, as another company's general counsel, I once worked with the board of directors to structure the resignation of my boss, the CEO. To this day I regret that it cost me his friendship.
I can honestly say that I have learned important things from every boss that I have ever had. I think all employees would be better off if they, too, worked to learn from their boss's successes and, yes, failures, instead of closing their mind because they feel contempt.
All of this is by way of introduction to a Business Week column (sub. req.) written by Jack Welch last spring, which I stumbled upon while thumbing through an old pile of magazines. A reader asked,
My wife and I regularly see incompetence, tolerance for stupid decision-making, and outright unprofessionalism at the companies where we work. Why is it so hard to find a manager you can respect, follow, and learn something from?
This is what Jack Welch had to say:
It's not hard. But it does require a certain mindset, one you may have difficulty finding in yourself. If so, you're not alone. Every week we receive several e-mails that sound like yours. The wording and details are different, but the underlying question is always the same: Why am I the only person at my company who gets it?
We realize there are days when it can feel as if everyone around you is inept. Companies, after all, are composed of people, and people screw up, reward mediocrity, play politics, and otherwise commit myriad organizational sins. But the "everyone's dumb but me" attitude is dangerous. Not only is it a career-killer, but it's also simply not a realistic perspective on business. How do you explain the thriving, creative financial-services industry? Or the envelope-pushing genius of the life-sciences field? Or the incredible list of new businesses that have sprung from the Internet? Too many companies perform well every day -- returning billions in profits by inventing, making, selling, and distributing millions of products and services -- for every manager out there to be a total nincompoop.
That's why we suggest that you reflect on your own gloomy view of the working world. To be direct, we are wondering if you might be a boss-hater.
Very few people would ever identify themselves as boss-haters. They usually see themselves as noble victims, speaking truth to power. Forget that line. Boss-haters are a breed. It doesn't matter where they work -- big corporations, family companies, partnerships, nonprofits, newspapers, or government agencies. Boss-haters enter into any authority relationship with barely repressed cynicism and ingrained negativity toward "the system." And even though their reasons may be varied, from upbringing to personality to political bent, boss-haters are unified in their inability to see the value in any person above them in a hierarchy.
The boss-haters in any organization tend to find each other, and once in numbers, they usually become quite outspoken. Boss-haters also tend to be on the high-IQ side. That's unfortunate, really. Because instead of using their intelligence to improve the way work is done, boss-haters focus, laser-like, on all of the organization's flaws and the sheer, incomprehensible idiocy of the higher-ups.
Of course, because of their intelligence, some boss-haters do get ahead -- briefly. More often, the organization feels their vibe, and bosses respond in kind, with distancing or worse.
Now, maybe you're not a boss-hater. But the sweeping nature of your question suggests no shortage of contempt for those at the top. Perhaps, then, you should give yourself a test. Think of a boss you've encountered who didn't have a problem. If you can't, the problem may be something you can fix just by opening up your mind.
Unlike Mr. Welch, I do not have boundless faith in the power of self-improvement. Perhaps, if you are a boss-hater, you can't change. So what are you going to do? Continue to make yourself and those around you miserable? Or, alternatively, you could find a way to earn a living without having a boss. Of course, if you are successful at that you may need to hire somebody to help, and then you will have become what you have always hated. A boss.
Hire wisely, grasshopper.
Yes, I have hated a boss once. She became my boss as a result of a reorg and within 6 short months she was laid off. I don't know how things would have turned out had she remained my manager longer. Perhaps I would have quit.
Today, many years later, I like my boss. He's bright. As a techie who hasn't fallen behind in his technical skillset, he "gets it" when we talk to him. I can't stress how nice that is. Too often we techies have to "dumb down" things to communicate with the boss, only to have the oversimplifications we put forth earlier come bite us in the rear later.
That said, I have a Project Manager I can't stand. I won't say I hate him. But he always comes up with the most inane points and has the most idiotic expectations. Simply setting him straight on how it really works is a task unto itself. Come to think of it, I should have a project billing code for just that!
I have had some excellent bosses. As a matter of fact I'm married to a man who was once my boss. (We started dating after I worked for him, but I digress.)
For many years, I was an enthusiastic employee of a terrific company that many creative and technical folks would have given their eye teeth to work for. I handled inter-office politics and management decisions with aplomb. That said, however, my last manager was awful! Looking back, I now believe he was emotionally unbalanced if not mentally ill.
When the working conditions became miserable, a few of my co-workers and I went to upper management and HR expressing our concerns, but everyone just smiled politely and did nothing. You see not only was he of an untouchable class (i.e., gay), he was a victim of sexual abuse and let everyone know it. He even discussed suicide with one of my co-workers. Suffice it to say, his poor management resulted in the disbanding of my department the loss of my job. I wasn't fired mind you-I was still expected to show up and find something to do even though the company was going through layoffs. Considering that I had loved my work the situation was disheartening to say the least.
I have met some congenital boss haters who, for whatever reason, just don't like/accept authority. I've also seen how boss hatred can be fostered through political correctness and dysfunctional management that poisons the work environment. Am I a boss hater? Nope. I fear I could have become one though if I had not had the courage to quit.
I would state my opposition to the implication in the quoted text that if a company makes lots of money, it must have good managers. I once worked for a company that made hand over fist supplying hardware and software to automobile dealerships.
The very small purchasing department had two levels of management: a immediate supervisor and a more remote manager. The supervisor took care of our day to day HR business (vacations, training classes) as well as distributing the work load. I honestly don't know what purpose the manager served. He watched one supervisor and signed the large purchase orders.
Perhaps the reason so many people hate their boss (witness the huge popularity of the Office in both the US and Britian) is because we simply have too many of them. The flatter the organization chart, the more fairness there seems to be.
The profitablity of the company had nothing to do with how well it was managed but with how aggressive the company was suing companies that had violated patents, putting them out of business, and then buying them for very cheap.
Perhaps the reason so many people hate their boss ... is because we simply have too many of them. The flatter the organization chart, the more fairness there seems to be.
The organization I work in went through a massive reorg a little less than two years ago. The result: our management structure is now flatter.
Do I think I am treated more fairly now than before? Yes. Do I think it is because of the flatter management structure? No. I think it has more to do with the fact that my manager is a good and fair guy.
There is actually one downside to a flatter management structure. When things go wrong, escalation can be painful. Whereas before teams of 5 each directly reported to one manager, now teams of about 20 do. Every manager, without exception, is swamped. When I need his attention on a matter I can not (due to process constraints) resolve independently, he is not always available. The result is a delay that ends up, usually, costing us money in SLA hits.
I'm not a boss-hater, although I had one that I didn't respect because he was lazy and dishonest.
Years ago, I worked for a good company and was a good employee. I was steadily promoted, until one day I was promoted to a job I could not handle. I was not able to give the employees I supervised what they needed. I became the object of the resentment and animosity of the people I supervised. I gave it my best shot, but couldn't cut it. I was too embarrassed to ask for my old job back, so I quit.
This was my first experience with the "Peter Principle.":.
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle
"The Peter Principle is a colloquial principle of hierarchiology, stated as "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."
I have observed this in other work environments since then. But, some employees wouldn't be happy if you hanged them with a new rope.
I dunno. It's an interesting thought, but it glosses over the fact that bad bosses DO exist. Sure, a good many ppl may just suffer from an authority issue, or a bad case of NIH.. but the reality is, when companies make the assumption that any employee that is irked about their boss is just misguided, they hurt everyone. As much as it sucks to hear, these things need to be seen on a case-by-case basis.
I've had more than a few good managers in my career. But I've also had 2 that were just horrid. Sure, I could look at them and find a few redeeming qualities. But overall, they should never have been managers. One of them was so bad that ppl put under him either transferred or quit. The HR response? Nada. They circled the wagons because he was a social friend of our EVP. In this case, it was not the employees that were wrong :)
I do, honestly, realize the point of this article. But I find it somewhat irksome that it doesn't at least acknowledge that sometimes there really ARE horrid bosses. They do exist :)
I've been an Indian, and I'm currently a Chief, and I can say that I have never "hated" the Chiefs I worked under (even when they did things stone idiotic), but I could readily feel the "you should die!" vibe coming from certain folks when standing on both sides of the aisle. And even though on certain occasions I knew I was taking a huge bullet by doing it, I fired them when I was Chief.
PS: Jack Welch is an overrated mook.
In more than 3 decades, only 2 bad bosses. One was a distributed stress processor, and as the situation went bad for him, he made sure it was worse for us. I felt I had to have that job - child support, etc - and stayed until layed off.
By staying, I degraded myself, and taught him he could get away with treating people like that, which has damaged his later career. I vowed it wouldn't happen again for me or for my children, and began a rigorous investment program. I told my kids, "You won't understand it now, but I want you to reach age 40 with the ability, if you have to, to tell a boss, 'I am afraid you misunderstand our relations.'"
It has worked. When the most recent boss began to insult, I negotiated a severance package and left - the first of 75% of her employees (so far) to go. The kids, in their mid-20s, love their work ... but they also have continued their own rigorous investment plans and have net worths twice their income.
I got more from my worst employee and my worst boss, than from the ones I look back on with fondness.
I find it interesting, and quite illustrative, that Mr. Welch assumes that the complainant in the original letter is a lone malcontent in an otherwise smoothly hummning hive of worker bees.
I've had several bosses over the years, ranging from adequate to bad to outright malevolent. I've rarely seen a situation where one staff member says, "S/he's an *******" and the rest of the staff says, "S/he's not so bad."
Of course, I've never worked for Jack Welch, so I have at least one thing to be grateful for this morning.
I've had both great bosses and terrible bosses, with a few in between. Some people apparently became supervisors in part due to their ability to get other people to quit. I say this with confidence about one woman in particular -- it was down to just her and one other as permanent employees (from a peak of 7 or 8 a year earlier,) the other woman was trying to string along three other jobs just to be able to leave that office after 4 hours a day, and during the two months I temped there, not only did four other temps quit, but I learned that 11 other temps had showed up and quit in the few months before I arrived, rarely lasting more than a week. During my interview for the position, the woman advised me of the two temps she was intending to fire as soon as she could gather evidence (she actually pointed to them and told me their names during the interview,) filled me in on her personal medical history and that of her husband, and generally behaved quite poorly. I was relieved it was a temporary job. There was another position (again, a revolving door situation) where the direct supervisor seemed to have a zeal for making people cry; I remember praying to God that they'd find a reason to fire me, because my parents would have killed me if I quit. I remember thinking, when I started that job, that the HR people seemed remarkably unenthusiastic about my posting. I also remember seeing ads for that position show up again and again in the paper, long after I left.
Other managers have been wonderful -- listening to subordinates when their daily experiences had an impact on productivity, going to bat for people in situations where a policy made no sense, refraining from "you're 20, and I'm 50, you're poor and I'm rich, you're staff and I'm a manger, I'm big and you're small, I'm right and you're wrong" behavior, etc. One manager I had at Disneyland was like that; he made 10-15 times what any of us did in a year (in the off season we averaged 7-10 hours a week, and he worked full-time year around,) he had kids older than any of us, and still he acted like he had real respect for us. Our team had excellent productivity, and was one of the few I worked in where, if the "boss" wasn't around, everyone still worked just as hard. He also made an effort to select good shift supervisors; people who worked hard and understood how different people on the team worked. He didn't promote someone just because they'd been to college (me) or had high productivity (I was okay, but not amazing -- some other people were really good, but wouldn't have understood how to manage people who just can't run 75lbs straight up a concrete staircase.) In my case, he told me I'd make a better leader in a different functional area (he was in receiving/stock, and I was really good with customers) and recommended me to a front-of-the-house manager.
I'm reminded of all those things they tell people in therapy -- "use 'me' statements," "talk about specific incidents," "criticize actions, not people." Maybe "my boss is an idiot" is true, but it's not very helpful even so. "My boss is only marginally competent, because..." may sound harsh, but it can be quite helpful, if it's true.
Way to misinterpret the question, Jack -- "It's not them, it's you." The fact is, there _are_ many companies where "incompetence, tolerance for stupid decision-making, and outright unprofessionalism" are rampant, and yet they continue to make money -- I just left such a company, a huge multinational financial services company. My direct manager was great, a true pleasure to work for; his manager was a toxic glad-handler who said the right things to his higher-ups while treating his underlings poorly and with a total lack of respect. It became a running joke in the department that the technical direction (for our computing infrastructure, say) was determined by whichever vendor took him out to lunch last. Fortunately (?) decisions like that ended up being made above even his head, for better or worse. Despite this, the firm continues to make huge amounts of money, so even his incompetence went unchecked. Mr. Welch's assumption that an innocuous question ("why is it hard to find good managers") is a sign that the questioner is just a "boss-hater" is insulting or amazingly ill-informed. Anyone who's spent time in any large organization knows that it _is_ hard to find good managers.
I'm sure there are any number of annoying or even loathesome bosses. Perhaps I am one. I am also sure that if you work your whole life and only hate one boss, you are not one of the "boss-haters" that Welch was writing about. So if you have generally respected the people you have worked for with but one or two exceptions, you are obviously not the subject of this post. However, if you have generally disliked or disrespected the people that you have worked for, if you are more disgruntled than, er, gruntled at work, you are either ill-suited to working for any boss or you are doing a particularly bad job of choosing bosses that you can respect. Either way, you need to change your attitude or work for yourself to avoid being miserable.
It sounds like there's a certain sort of employee that Mr. Welch has a real contempt for, enough that he has to fictionalize a reprehensible role for them to be playing. It sounds like Jack Welch is the sort of guy who really dislikes having his decisions questioned.
Bad managers exist. That a fact of life. The competence profile of any group of managers probably fits well with a standard bell curve. So you can easily wind up with an incompetent boss. Or you may just have a personality conflict with your boss, also a fact of life, and probably neither party's fault to any great degree.
Therefore, anyone might find themselves in a situation where they don't like their boss. They may even 'hate' them. I personally like to save my hate for those who really deserve it.
You may hate your boss, and still not be a 'boss-hater', which is an obviously disparaging term. I may fish occasionally, but that does not make me a fisherman.
No one seems to be reading Welch the way I would, which is as a powerful leader trying to marginalize dissent. People who disagree with me? They're boss-haters, dead-enders. They don't deserve promotion. Even though they're intelligent, their positions obviously come from "ingrained negativity" and not having a better understanding than the people who have been set over them.
This article would be a lot more credible coming from an employee of GE than its CEO.
I guess I have "boss apathy." I know there are more efficient, engineering ways of doing things at my company, but I could care less because they write the check and their ways work well enough. They know my criticisms which are mostly about the underlying technology which we didn't even make.
What ticks me off, though, is when you have to deal with a boss who clearly knows very little about the technical processes of a project, but insists on calling all of the shots where an engineer-architect should be doing it. Management needs to learn that those doing the actual work, be it technical, financial, artistic, etc. are going to often have ideal ways of doing something and the boss may not necessarily even understand why their employee is disagreeing.
A better title for those who like to just bitch and work on self-aggrandizement is probably just "narcissistic curmudgeon."