If you’re taking pity on yourself because you think you’re saddled with the world’s worst boss, consider the story of a woman in the New York City area whose encounter with a less-than-perfect manager stayed with her for years after it occurred.
Monica Jones (not her real name), who was in her late 20s at that time, recalled how a supervisor she reported to seemed especially hard on her — and had strange ways of showing it.
“I wrote an important process memo at this manager’s request. I worked incredibly hard on it for more than a week — between my other assignments. I made sure all critical points were included and went out of my way to solicit input” from senior members of her team, she said, who had more experience on certain functions of the department.
Jones spent hours refining her memo, since she knew it would be part of a training manual for other staff members. “I wanted it to be as clear and instructive as possible, and I felt she’d asked me to do this for a reason — so I wanted to deliver on it.”
After she turned it in, the strangest thing happened. She was met with deafening silence.
Jones said she knew people were busy, “and we were a large staff with so much going on, so on some level I knew some time might go by before I heard back. But when I still didn’t get any response or reaction after several days, I became confused” — and she worried about what the silence meant.
When Jones diplomatically reminded the boss about a week later that she’d submitted the memo and asked her if there was anything more she could do, the manager still didn’t react or comment — “it was the oddest thing.”
Finally, several weeks later, Jones said she arrived at work one morning to find a post-it note on her desk: “A major disappointment,” it read.
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The boss had left a print-out of the memo with a critique of it written in the margins. “She wrote that it was too long, too detailed. She had crossed out big chunks of my draft and written, ‘No! Absolutely not.’ And she didn’t like that I’d gone to other staff members for input — which was weird, because I’d told her about it, and she’d said she was glad I was doing that.”
Relatively new to her department at the time, Jones felt crushed, but she tried to remove emotion from the encounter and take it in stride. “It seemed clear, in retrospect, that this person really wanted just a short one-pager with a few bullet points — not a super detailed memo. But that’s not what she’d asked me to do,” said Jones.
The young professional acknowledged her memo “had its imperfections,” and she said she assumed there would be revisions. But what most disturbed her about the experience was the poor communication. “A friendly face-to-face chat would have helped me enormously. She could have pointed out a few things, given me a chance to revise. I gladly would have made changes,” she said, adding that she “wanted to succeed.”
But it got even worse. The boss took the assignment away from Jones — and gave the memo to another staffer to “fix.” The boss even told others on the team that Jones’s original draft had “failed.”
Jones was mortified — everyone on the team knew she’d been working on it. The experience was so devastating, she says, that to this day when she reflects on it, “I’m surprised I hung in there and stayed at that job. Sure, you shouldn’t personalize things or overreact, and you have to keep things in perspective and consider the work experience overall.” And to be sure, that was not a #MeToo experience or anything close to it.
But it wasn’t just that one experience with that manager. “She routinely threw people under the bus and made disparaging comments about others in meetings — but somehow got away with it because people said, ‘Oh, that’s just how she is,’ or, ‘She really doesn’t mean that.’ But people learned to stay away from her as much as possible.”
Jones said that individual was probably “the worst boss I ever had” — but that she also learned some “lessons I’ll never forget.”
An ability to communicate well with employees should be a key attribute of any senior manager — and ideally, a corporation or organization stresses the importance of managing people well. But such is not always the case, alas.
(Jones also notes that she never discussed her experience with human resources — at the time, she didn’t think that was an option.)
As the years went on and she moved up the ranks, Jones said she recalled that experience and used it to help inform the way she communicated and interacted with her own direct reports — proving that bad bosses, in many cases, still have something to teach, as unpleasant as working with them can be.
From her own little case study, Jones said she learned the following about managing others:
1.) Be clear in your communications. If you want a memo or a draft by someone else kept short, say that. And if you know you don’t want something a certain way, say that, too. Underlings (or any employees, for that matter) aren’t mind readers.
2.) Be realistic in your expectations. That might mean helping people to learn and grow along the way as they complete their tasks at hand — and offering them training or assistance, depending on the work and its importance to the organization.
Success from all contributors, no matter what role they play, impacts the bottom line.
3.) Be a wise and guiding force. You might “not have the time for this” — but you almost certainly must make time for it. Success from all contributors, no matter what role they play, impacts the bottom line. So be patient. Be forgiving (to a point). Is any manager perfect? Of course not. But work hard to develop your people as best you can — and seek help from your HR or training departments and others as necessary.
4.) Be understanding when people have questions or hesitations about a new assignment. Be prompt and clear (that word again) in your direction and guidance to employees along the way.
5.) Remember that the success of others in your area contributes to your own success as a manager.
6.) If an employee — after instruction, mentoring and more — still isn’t mastering something or is struggling in some fundamental way for a period of time, know that it’s likely time to reassess the match between the position and the person.
“I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a ‘transformer’ in any situation, any organization,” said the late Stephen Covey, author of the mega best-seller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” “Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.”
These words of wisdom, spoken quite some time ago, can apply to managers anywhere and everywhere today.