Managers who don’t know how to manage

In big small cities, a very large “small company,” and branch offices of a large company, this problem is rampant. It goes like this.

Someone is an excellent, skilled worker in the profession they do. Let’s say engineering. On the merit of being a good engineer, they ascend through the ranks and eventually becomes a manager.

Now, having it written out like this, most of you probably spotted the mistake. This assumes that engineering and managing require the same qualifications. They don’t. But it is the norm for all but one of my previous work experiences. You hear a lot about micromanaging managers? You hear about managers who undermine you? Sets you up to fail just so customers come running to them and they can be the good guy?

I was working for a manager-scientist. Her tech slammed a truck door on my leg. I reported this behaviour. I, not the other tech, was unemployed next month. I found out later that they were friends.

I was working as an inspector. My inspector-turned-manager boss told me to overlook violations. I said the job he hired me for specifically doesn’t allow me to do that. I was demoted within 3 months and unemployed within 6.

I was working in another type of inspection. A bunch of good, skilled, experienced guys were quitting, and I heard it was because of lack of support from the management. One day, I reported a violation, and the management overturned my decision without even talking to me. This wasn’t just lack of support. It was a clear violation of the guidelines. Next time I communicate a violation to a client, they’ll just laugh at me.

Why didn’t I report these violations to the governing authorities of these programs? Because someone told me they’d make sure I’d never work in this county again if I upset them.

A manager needs to have the skills and temperament of a manager. This can be accomplished by:

  • give high salary, authority, and status to the non-managing positions so that those who aren’t competent will not make it a goal.
  • if the managerial position does not require a professional designation in the industry, clearly define the manager’s responsibilities and authorities so that the manager cannot interfere with, impede, or override a professional decision.
  • if the managing position requires a certain professional designation (e.g. P.Eng.), consider creating a specific requirement for a manager training program (e.g. in-house, MBA).
  • create reporting channels and a whistle-blower protection program and make sure it works.

We use friends in crisis for our own benefit.

When our friends are down and come to us for support, sometimes, or just some of us, get this surge of… for the lack of a better word, joy. We justify that feeling by saying “I’m just so happy to get the opportunity to help.

No matter what we say to justify it, one thing is very clear – it’s odd. Your friend is down and out and burnt-out, and you’re happy because of something about you. Being joyful about an opportunity to help is not about them; it’s legitimately categorically about you. It’s about how we feel useful, worthy, valued, valuable, important, authoritative, and selected.

And, in that moment of our friend’s need, our mind goes to what would make us feel more useful, valuable, and impressive by trying to resolve the issue for them. We try to tell the friend solutions. We tell our friends to look on the bright side. This friend, clearly with autonomy and capability, probably has thought of everything you can come up with in 2 minutes. They have probably even tried everything. They might come to you seeking answers, but deep down they know you don’t have the answers. (if they get angry at you for not having the answer, it might be a displaced anger about the situation they are in. So we are not free to use it as our reason for offering solutions.)

So, what is the answer… what do we do when our friends come to us, looking for support, help, answers?

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. – Carl W. Buechener

We really listen to them. They are actually telling us what they want from us. Often, it is to be listened to, validated, supported, and act as a sounding board for their thoughts in coming up with their own solutions. But we can’t assume that either. We need to listen, really listen, to know what they are looking for.

Now, when we are really listening to someone and giving that person what they want, we are relinquishing control of the scene, of our friend, and of ourselves. This is extremely uncomfortable, or even threatening, for some people. All of us have at least a little bit of it, so we have to be aware of it. One of my close friends struggles with a strong affliction of it. It is my belief that she can’t handle the emotions for whatever reason. It’s just there is something preventing her from going there. My stories are usually cut off and changed to a conversation about an “object,” not about experience, after a sentence or so. It doesn’t make her evil or any less caring. It is that there are limits to all of us, and some of us this is the limit. In that case, many of us with this dilemma would switch the topic from our friend and their emotional distress to an object, such as a solution, a coping method, or an inspirational quote like “tomorrow is another day.”

We have to know these limits and choose to make that moment all about our friend. It takes courage. It takes strength. It takes great sacrifices. And we have to do it as a friend. If we can’t, if our limits are too great, we need to send them to another friend of theirs who can support them in that way if we really truly care about them.