One of the toughest adjustments new managers have to make is managing their transition from specialist or expert operator to someone who is no longer required to play to these strengths.
I’ve worked with many managers (well-seasoned ones and young bucks,) and most of them saw this transition as a real baptism of fire (…but without a Priest to guide them through.)
Becoming the Boss
Here’s what one manager told me when I was coaching him.
“When I first became a manager I was really uncomfortable with the sudden nom de plume “Boss.” In one fell swoop I went from being one of the gang to becoming the gang leader, not by common consent of the team, but through imposition as far as they were concerned. I found the hierarchy really hard to get used to. To be honest, I don’t know that I ever have.”
What’s in a Name?
As we discussed his experience and concerns, we started to realise that there was a clue hidden away in what he had told me, and it’s the use of his word “boss.”
It raised a number of questions for us:
- What should we call our leaders?
- Do the titles we afford them have to be so forcefully hierarchical?
- Why do we need to create this enormous separation between the person who manages a team’s operation and the members of that team?
We both agreed that whatever we choose to call ourselves, “boss” (even if delivered tongue-in-cheek) is among the least helpful of titles. Rightly or wrongly, we associate the word “boss” with being bossy. That is its derivation. So the implication is that in order to be a boss you have to be bossy.
It’s a short-hand job description or competency profile. As such, it serves no-one very well.
Feeling the Distance
First, employees subconsciously feel the need to distance and protect themselves. Secondly the manager, consciously or otherwise, feels the imperative to live up to the tag. “Boss” is a title that forces distance when closeness and collaboration is needed to deliver results.
This is what my client had experienced when he first accepted the role, and had been struggling with it ever since.
Some people love the title of “boss” because it is a public declaration of their significance and raised status. Other managers, the more successful ones, realise that results are not achieved by wielding status, but by engagement, good management, and loyalty.
A Creepy Example
To back up this assertion, I shared with a story with my client of manager who attended one of my management training workshops. At a certain point in the proceedings, he proudly boasted that he followed people to the toilet and stood outside with a stopwatch until they came out.
He would penalise them if they went over the allotted three minutes per visit.
Suppressing my urge to tell him that this was the weirdest example of a time and motion study I’d ever encountered, I asked him to tell me a bit more about his team.
- Were they committed?
- Were they pro-active?
- Were they diligent?
- Were they productive?
His answer, not surprisingly, was “No. In fact, they’re the worst performing shift on the plant.”
Being Boss or Being Bossy
The manager above loved being the boss, and no love was lost between him and his team. But we have learned long ago that adopting a Directive, Telling style of management as our primary position yields few dividends in the long-term.
As an emergency measure, it has its place, but no-one likes a bossy-boots and we sure as hell don’t want to be managed by one.
Having this discussion with my client helped us both realise that the word “boss” is a highly-charged one. Using it has the psychological effect of driving a certain type of behaviour. Through further discussion we discovered that what’s needed is a reframing of the relationship between a manager and the people they manage: a relationship based on mutual benefit and interdependence, not hierarchy.
This reframing can be enough to reposition the way we interact with those we are privileged to manage.
The conclusion here is that some words such as ‘boss’ are very negatively impactful. We can weaken our positive impact by using them, even if it’s done ironically.
Using the word “boss” ironically simply reinforces our understanding of a Boss as someone who rules with a rod of iron, pulls rank, and has power over us.That’s a tough role to live up to, and not a desirable one for most of us. It certainly wasn’t what my client wanted for him and his team.
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- Top 6 Reasons Why People Hate Their Bosses (psychologytoday.com)
- Managing Your Boss – 3 Keys to Leading Up (leaderchat.org)
- Why won’t my boss fire my terrible coworker? (cbsnews.com)