By George Dutch
As career professionals, we know that the number one reason an employee leaves a job is because of a bad relationship with an immediate supervisor. This story comes in many shapes and forms. Undoubtedly, there are bad bosses out there. And, some workplaces are structurally dysfunctional. But each relationship is a two-way street, and most relationships break down due to poor communications which, in itself, is often a symptom of deeply rooted misunderstandings about what truly motivates us.
Old School. For example, if a particular manager has a directorial management style, they might conflict with an employee who functions best with ‘hands-off’ style management. The manager prefers to get the work done through the efforts of others--subordinates, assistants, associates--in the manner they, as the boss, determine is correct, appropriate, or effective. This is often referred to as an “old school” management style, or the familiar “command-and control” management style adopted from the military, from which, of course, many post-WWII managers were sourced. The employee, on the other hand, operates best under a manager who allows them to exercise independent control over their specific area of responsibility. They prefer a manager who lays out the goals and objectives for a project, then leaves them to get the desired result in their own way. The manager’s preferred style clashes directly with the employee’s preference for being managed! This is a recipe for workplace conflict. Unless both manager and employee have a vocabulary for communicating how they best function and what kind of situations motivate them, their attempts to communicate can quickly deteriorate into negative interactions, involving resentments, misunderstandings, petty squabbles, accusations, silent resistance, passive aggressive behavior, harassment, discrimination, and other common forms of unproductive workplace behaviors. As professional career guides, we can help our clients navigate the choppy waters of on-the-job relations by helping them focus on how they work best as managers or employees. The key to doing so is to help them step out of the volatile on-the-job circumstances, and tell stories about enjoyable projects at home or in the community.
How do they manage projects outside of work? When listening to your client stories, listen to managers describe situations outside of work where they took responsibility for accomplishing a goal or getting something done by actively managing the efforts of others, such as in volunteer projects through a social service club, a sports team, a church or synagogue, or a professional association. Do they actually step into such situations outside of work? If they do, they may have a natural managerial talent that they enjoy using. Are they equally “old school” in those situations? Or, do they adopt a different style of managing, perhaps as a team captain, where they act as an example to a team or put the team into action? Or, do they take on more of a coordinator role, where their interactions with subordinates are participatory rather than authoritative in nature? Or, do they tend to act and speak in a forthright manner as a leader causing others to follow them, or their cause, program, or mission? Or, are they adept at determining what sort of work people are suited for, and encourage them, and how their abilities can best be used in that situation? Some managers feel obliged to operate in a certain managerial style due to the corporate culture in which they work, but will gravitate to their more natural style during times when they are doing something they truly enjoy outside of work.
How do they prefer to be managed? Similarly, employees can learn what kind of management style they prefer by paying attention to the way they are managed in activities outside of their 9-5 job. Some individuals prefer continuous support from someone who touches bases frequently and offers directions and advice as needed. Others prefer oversight from someone who provides direction and support only at key points of a project, usually when a critical decision needs to be made. I know that I prefer a manager who provides me with direction and support at the outset of a new assignment or responsibility, then leaves me pretty much alone to carry it out. Some people are truly independent and thrive without any managerial direction. Still others function best with a manager who treats them as an equal, who works with them as though they were involved in a collaborative effort.
Vocabulary for harmony. The next step is to help them build a vocabulary from those positive experiences that will assist them to communicate to their colleagues how they best work, in order to mitigate the often destructive misunderstandings that arise when people do not know how they best operate with their natural talents and motivations. This kind of informed communication is a key element for resolving many workplace disputes.