Learning how to manage with a tough boss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am

I HAD a chance to catch up with some old friends during the holidays last month. I asked one couple how their daughter, a recent Stanford graduate, was doing. They explained she had landed a job at a great company but was having tremendous problems getting along with her boss.

This didn't make much of an impression on me until a few days later when I had the same conversation with another couple. Their son (a recent graduate) had also found a dream job but it was turning into a nightmare also because of his boss.

I shouldn't have been surprised. I've always thought that one of the toughest transitions to make in a career occurs right at the start, when you are just out of school and ready to conquer the world. The problem isn't youth or inexperience or grandiose ambition. The big problem is authority figures.

It's easy to see why these two bright young people (and many more like them) were having problems with their new bosses. For the first two decades of their lives, every authority figure they had dealt with was likely to have had their best interests atheart.

A wag I know calls this the ''This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You'' syndrome. That's the line parents use when punishing their children. They're punishing the child for his or her own good, so the child won't repeat the error.

Young people face the same instructional dynamic with virtually every authority figure from nursery to graduate school.

A teacher who knows they are not living up to their potential tells them: ''It kills me to give you a bad grade, but that's the only way to teach you not to hand in shoddy work.'' A coach suspends a star player for missing practice. The suspension hurts the coach and the team, but the objective is to teach the player discipline.

Each of these authority figures - parent, teacher, coach - is looking out for the young person's best interests.

All that changes when people enter the workplace. Suddenly they're working for a boss who is looking out primarily for himself or his company.

That's a dramatic transition for a lot of young people, especially if they don't recognise the change they're going through. The sting of being berated or punished by a boss is no longer softened by the implicit understanding that ''this hurts me more than it hurts you''. The truth is, it usually doesn't hurt the boss at all! Fresh-faced youngsters aren't the only ones who experience this rude awakening. It happens when people switch jobs. If you leave a paternalistic company where everyone treats you like ''family'', to work for a hard-boiled, every-man-for-himself organisation, you might have problems with your new superiors, especially if you don't appreciate the different styles.

There's a managerial irony here, too. I realise the current ''lean and mean'' management gospel promotes a corporate culture where bosses have to look out for their own interests. When the daily themes being pounded into managers' heads are ''cut the fat'', and ''produce or perish'', it's not hard to see why they are less nurturing than our parents, teachers, and coaches.

But here's the rub: despite all the economic pressures favouring the heartless boss who never loses sight of the bottom line, I still think managers are better off if they model themselves on parents. In the long run, a company where the authority figures have the employees' best interests at heart will outlive a company where they don't.

It's easy to pay lip service to this noble sentiment but tougher to practise it. Let's say I promote someone because he has a big account in his pocket and give him a hefty salary increase and an important title. Let's also say that a year after the promotion, he loses the account.

As a manager, I have two options here.

I can look out for my interests and that of the company. He's failed. So I punish him by cutting his salary, giving someone else his fancy title, and if he loses another account, getting rid of him. In strict economic terms, that's the right thing to do.

Or I can put his interests ahead of mine. If I care about him as a human being and support him when he's down, and if everyone in the company sees me doing that, then I've created more of a warm family feeling in the company. It makes people feel more secure.

Carrying this employee until he gets his bearings again might cost the company some money in the short term, but you'll never convince me this isn't the right approach. Q: My partner and I have a thriving urban development consultancy. We advise local governments and developers about housing and office construction projects. But lately, as our business has gotten more complicated, my partner has started injecting his wife into our decision-making process.

Whenever we have to make an aesthetic judgment about a property or an architect or a designer, he waits to see what his wife (a successful artist) thinks. I have to admit she has good taste and has helped us avoid some bad choices, but I didn't team up with this man to listen to him say, ''Let's see what Lynn thinks''. How do I remove his wife from our partnership? Or am I overreacting? A: You have a right to be concerned. The real danger here is not the quality (or lack thereof) of the wife's judgment. You admit that you value her opinion in certain areas.

But ultimately the wife may turn into a wedge that destroys your partnership. Right now you have a relationship of two equals. Adding the wife to the equation creates a triangle that, in a dispute, will not tilt in your favour. At some point, if you and your partner disagree over something, he will have two votes to your one. You'll simply be out-gunned.

People form partnerships because they like the combination of being their own boss while sharing the risk with people they trust. This scenario contradicts that reasoning.

Perhaps the two of you should have a discussion about the meaning of a partnership. If you aren't in sync about this fundamental issue, it's better to know that sooner rather than later.