WHO OWNS THE WORKER?
Elizabeth loved donuts. Every morning she arrived at work twenty minutes early so she could sit at her desk and enjoy her daily indulgence. Routinely, Elizabeth’s manager, Jill, came into her cubicle to say hello. In what she saw as a playful gesture, Jill would help herself to a small piece of Elizabeth’s donut. She valued connecting with her employees and treated them like she would her friends.
What Jill viewed as fun was annoying to Elizabeth. Over time, annoyance turned to anger. She began to see the daily donut encounter as part of a general pattern in Jill’s behavior toward employees. Jill acted like she had a right to access and use (or eat) whatever employees bought to work. She would often rifle through their desks and cubicles looking for papers. She frequently displaced them from meeting rooms when she needed one. She routinely called employees at home and when they were on vacation to discuss issues that could have waited until they returned to work. Jill believed that what belonged to her employees also belonged to Jill.
In response to Jill’s behavior, Elizabeth and her coworkers tried to avoid their boss. They alerted each other when Jill came around and hid any food they may have been eating at their desks. They locked up any personal information they did not want Jill to see. When Jill called them at home, they didn’t immediately return her calls, telling her that they were unavailable. To prevent Jill from eating her donut, Elizabeth started eating it on the way to work rather than at her desk.
As Elizabeth became more guarded and distant from her manager, Jill became concerned that Elizabeth was being negatively influenced by the other employees. She called a staff meeting to tell employees that she expected them to be more engaged and committed to their jobs. The tension at work took an emotional toll on Elizabeth, so she started looking for another job.
Elizabeth got a job at a different company where she felt respected and appreciated. Her new boss did not act like he owned employees. He only called employees after hours if there was an emergency that couldn’t wait, and he never took their food. Elizabeth became engaged in work again. She even started bringing her donut to work to eat at her desk rather than in the car.
Jill was baffled by Elizabeth’s departure. How could a good employee become so disgruntled? How did their relationship, which was once good, become so strained? She concluded that Elizabeth’s coworkers turned Elizabeth against her. Never once did Jill consider that her behavior contributed to employee disengagement or drove Elizabeth to leave.
Why did Jill help herself to a piece of Elizabeth’s donut each day? Why did she believe she owned any aspect of her employees’ lives? Because she could. She was the boss. Somewhere along the line she learned that bosses are free to take what they want from employees. What were Elizabeth and her coworkers to do? Refuse their boss? Culturally, refusing the boss access to anything presents a risk many cannot afford to take. The sense of ownership is a strong undercurrent in relationships between managers and employees and is pervasive but seldom discussed, except among frustrated employees.
From Elizabeth’s perspective, Jill’s behavior was disrespectful and demeaning. By her actions each day, Jill took power away from Elizabeth. As Elizabeth’s power decreased, so did her investment in her work. Her energy was directed into anger, which grew until she could no longer stand the frustration. This is a classic example of the fact that employees don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses.
Jill was oblivious to the reasons Elizabeth, a good employee, had become disengaged and eventually left. She had adopted a perspective that because Elizabeth work for her, everything Elizabeth brought to work was within her domain to use, manage, and consume as she saw fit. She viewed eating Elizabeth’s donut as a playful act—having a bit of fun with her employee. Was Jill a bad person? Probably not. Did she have a distorted sense of ownership of her employees? Absolutely.
Jill’s donut-eating behavior is a bit strange; most managers don’t help themselves to food on an employee’s desk. It is not unusual, however, for managers to believe and act like they own what employees bring to work—their talent, skills, and time, even personal time. This belief is part of the culture of management. Actions grounded in this belief often cause employees to feel frustrated, angry, apathetic, and disengaged. I believe much of the drama employees exhibit at work stems from their reactions to feeling owned by their bosses.
It seems human beings have a propensity for wanting to own things, including each other. Historically, monarchs owned subjects, masters owned slaves, and husbands owned wives. In most cultures, such institutions of ownership have been outlawed, which doesn’t mean they have gone away. Though illegal, we know that human ownership still thrives in our world today. Human trafficking, forced labor, children working in fields and factories rather than going to school are examples of these practices in the twenty-first century…
CONTROL AND RESIGNATION
Shonda finally agreed to become the new supervisor of the unit. For years, her manager had tried to persuade her to take a leadership position. She was technically skilled, an excellent problem solver, and a clear communicator. Her boss believed she would make a great leader.
Being a supervisor was not what Shonda had expected. Instead of working with the team to develop new ideas and procedures for improvement, she spent most of her time in meetings with other supervisors and managers looking at productivity reports and budgets to ensure that her team was performing at acceptable levels and staying within expected parameters.
No longer being in the details of the work, Shonda struggled to keep up with developments in her industry. She spent evenings and weekends reading books and journals but lacked the time to test new concepts in her daily work. The team noticed that Shonda had lost her technical edge. They could no longer rely on her as their expert. Shonda was reluctant to embrace any new directions that she did not fully understand, insisting that the team continue to use the old “tried and true” methods and procedures.
Shonda’s once-positive relationships with her team members soured. She became defensive when they questioned her expertise or pointed out flaws in her thinking. In response, they stopped trying to educate Shonda. Instead, they pretended that she was right, even when she was not. They would sometimes even laugh behind her back. As Shonda become less effective as a leader, the team became less engaged in doing a good job and only did what they were told even though they knew it would fail.
Shonda longed for the days when she and her work were respected. She concluded that she was not cut out for supervision and was demoted back to a staff position. She now works on independent projects that don’t require her to participate closely with her former team members. She no longer enjoys her work and regrets that she even tried to move into management.
Shonda was an excellent employee and should have been an excellent supervisor. She was an expert in her field and had the skills to be successful. Where did she go wrong? It was in clinging to the expectation that in her new role as boss she had to continue to be the technical expert. She tried desperately to stay current on the details of the work and the industry trends at the same time as she was learning her new job. She couldn’t do it all. The confidence and control she once felt over the details of the work turned into controlling employees. She presented herself as the expert because she thought everyone expected her to be the expert.
Management culture reinforces the notion that supervisors must know everything about the work they manage, which proved to be Shonda’s undoing as a supervisor.
While some management jobs require a high level of expertise, not all do. Even in those that require field expertise, the level of knowledge is often at a high and general level rather than specific and detailed. Aside from the requirements of the job, leaders often feel pressured to know more than their employees, even about the details. Shonda could not shift her identity from being the expert to being the leader of experts. With insufficient time to keep up her knowledge and skills, Shonda could not remain current and chose to keep employees from growing beyond her technical expertise. The impossible expectations placed on Shonda had disastrous results for her, the employees, and the organization.
In the last chapter, we explored how the authority held by management to direct the work can also make employees feel pressured to do what they think the boss wants. Following direct and implied rules and directives, as well as preferences and suggestions of the boss is part of the coercion and compliance dance between employees and management. Closely related is the dance of control and resignation. When we believe managers must have superior knowledge, skill and expertise and we exert a high level of control to prove it, employees often become resigned, disengaged and apathetic.
This chapter will explore various aspects of the control and resignation dance of the superiority tango.
At some level, we know it’s unrealistic for bosses to know, in detail, every aspect of the work they manage, but there is cultural pressure placed on us to be able to speak to it and answer any question directed at us from colleagues or our management. How embarrassing it would be for a leader to say to his boss, “I don’t know the answer. I’ll find out and get back to you.” There is a sense of competition among managers about how well we can represent the details of the work. We often think it’s better to pretend to know, or guess, than to admit ignorance.
I often sit in management meetings planning how to do this or speculating about the details of that. My colleagues and I present ourselves as experts of the areas we manage, even though there is so much we don’t fully understand…
DEMOCRACY AT WORK
…Democracy is a radical approach to governance. It places more trust in the governed than the leaders. Most of us embrace democracy as the best form of government on earth and defend it fiercely across the globe. We promote democracy as the superior form of government and talk about self-governance as a basic human right. Then, every day we go to work, we set aside our democratic ideals and succumb to the demands of dictators and monarchs, becoming the same in our leadership positions. We believe that democracy is the way of government but has little relevance within organizational governance. In civic life, and in organizational life, I trust a group of common people, be they citizens or employees, over the elite to choose the best leaders for the good of the whole.
Transparency is another principle of democracy that is gaining momentum in organizations. Immediate access to extensive information through the Web has created a thirst for more access to information. In both the public and private sectors, there is increased pressure for transparency, as the interests of shareholders and stakeholders are understood in broad terms. Concerns about the impacts of private decisions on the global economy and the natural environment have brought more scrutiny and demand for transparency.
Employees, too, are demanding greater access to the information they need to do their jobs. They are interested in the bigger picture and what is being discussed and decided at a management level. It seems that most organizations are responding to the general trends of greater transparency and access to information through the Internet as well as internal intranets and collaboration tools that allow and promote broad participation across organizations.
As a manager, I try to be transparent with employees about my work and what I know about the organization. In exchange, I expect employees to tell me if they believe I am wrong or about to make a huge mistake. My ability to lead effectively is dependent on employee support. If they think I am going in a direction opposed to our goals or not in the best interest of the organization, they are under obligation to tell me. When they do, I am always grateful. It allows us to have a conversation at a deeper level about our goals, vision for the future, or assumptions about the environment that we would not otherwise have. We also are able to agree on the appropriate course of action. My original plan is almost always improved by the suggestions of others. Sometimes, based on feedback from others, my original plan is shelved entirely. I need to rely on others to alert me when I am flat out wrong.
We are all on this journey together, each playing a different role. Being transparent with the people I manage enables greater participation, engagement, and ownership of the work. It also allows me to think bigger and bolder by assuring me that I will be stopped if I go off the deep end. We share risks together…