I learned a lot from one of my first bosses. I didn’t realize it at the time. I just thought he was kind of a jerk. I was a teller, trained to follow strict rules. Whenever I couldn’t help a customer, I would firmly explain why not, quoting the inviolate rule. When the unhappy customer appealed to the manager, he scrawled his approval on the check while scoffing, “She wouldn’t cash this?! Well, here you go!”
Guess who the customer brought the now-approved check to, flinging it on the counter with a triumphant smile?
It happened over and over and over. I seethed. I liked to think my anger didn’t show. One day my teller supervisor pulled me aside.
“Why do you keep letting that happen?”
“Me?? It’s him! He shouldn’t keep breaking the rules!”
“You should march right over and tell him that!”
“Are you kidding? He’d be pretty angry! That’s not my job. Someone from downtown should tell him. His boss.”
She handed me the phone. “Call his boss and tell him.”
“Right. You wanna get me fired?”
“OK, then you can’t make him stop. He’s a manager. He gets paid the big bucks to make exceptions to the rules. But you can stop having all the customers come back and fling their checks in your face. Which, by the way, anyone can read like a large-print book.”
“By breaking the rules?”
“By not saying ‘no’.” My large-print book face clearly conveyed my confusion.
“When you say ‘no’, you draw a ‘do not cross’ line. Try saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not authorized to cash this check, but perhaps the manager will OK it. Let me ask him.’”
Couldn’t hurt. I gave her idea a try. Coincidentally, I never had another customer come back and throw a check at me.
I learned a few important things that day. A good manager knows when to make exceptions. A good manager doesn’t throw his staff under the bus, either. He could have escorted the customer to my window, explained to both of us why he was making an exception, and assured the customer that I was following normal procedures.
Since then, I’ve experienced plenty of bosses- the good, the bad, and, well, none of them were ugly, so we’ll stick with the first two. I learned a lot from both, but I would guess that I learned the most from the bad ones- what NOT to do.
Some of the things I learned from both types:
- The Gray Area. My teller training was black and white. You can or can’t. Yes, or no. Smiling was optional. I resented being undermined and embarrassed for doing my job. Good managers explain their thinking and rationale, and how it fits into the bigger picture. I also learned that the higher you go in an organization, the grayer it gets.
- Words Matter. As my supervisor taught me, saying ‘no’ immediately sets up a win/lose situation and a defensive adversary. The vast majority of communication breakdowns are the result of a misunderstanding, not nefarious intention. And the main cause of misunderstandings are word choices. Consider: “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you had anticipated these problems!” Here’s another option, with just one small word change, and a period instead of an exclamation point. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if we had anticipated these problems.” Not perfect, but far more likely to move towards collaborative problem-solving.
- Developing People. The best manager I ever worked for was considered a one-person talent factory. Her department had higher-than usual turnover, but no one was leaving the company. They were getting promoted and moving on up. A lazy manager holds on to the most-experienced people, who eventually quit in frustration. A great manager invests in his or her team, for the benefit of the individuals as well as the company. You know the question: “What if I invest time and money in developing my employees, and they turn around and leave?” The simple answer: “What if you don’t, and they stay?”
- Change Management. Bad managers change for the sake of change or just to mark their territory. A good manager leads change. They observe, listen and ask questions to better understand the impact on people and their jobs. They explain the whys behind the changes. Bad managers don’t seek input from the people who will be most affected— and who probably have valuable insight. The best managers inspire change; the bad ones impersonally implement it without explanation and blame it on the powers that be.
- Leading vs Managing. The best managers know the difference between managing tasks and leading people, when to wear the right hat and are nimble enough to switch as needed. Bad managers treat both people and tasks impersonally.
- Communicating. A good manager is a skilled communicator who can adjust their communication style as needed. They communicate effectively with their own bosses as well as peers, employees and customers. Good managers are responsive, good listeners, observant, open-minded and ask good questions. Bad managers view communication as a one-way street, pass down information, ignore difficult news, talk too much and don’t listen. They are always right and have mastered the art of passive voice to deflect responsibility or blame: “It was decided that this will be the new policy.” Think Michael Scott!
These are just some of the differences between a good and a bad manager. If you believe you’re stuck with one of the bad ones, consider your options. Start positive- many interpersonal issues are the result of misunderstanding, not bad intentions. If you can, schedule some time to talk with your boss. Discuss your shared goals, your workstyles, and seek common ground. If you’ve already tried and been unsuccessful, consider the possibility that you may have very different communication styles, and adjust your own style to achieve better results. Wiley’s DiSC, a personal assessment tool, is a great way to identify and understand your own style, that of others, and how to adjust your communication according to your audience.
If all else fails and leaving is not an option, focus on doing the best job you can, and use the experience to learn how to be the boss you wish you had!