Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bad Bosses

Life and Times of Big Calabaza is NOT Dead!

After making her escape from her evil former employers, then detoxifying with sea otters in northern California, Claire has taken up new – if temporary – employment that has kept her from the warm embrace of the blogosphere. Her new boss, however, might drift a little into Miranda Priestly territory.

I can sympathize, as one of my bosses, ever so many years ago, was quite similar. She was such a control freak that she once demonstrated to me exactly where she wanted me to place a staple. “Here,” she said, indicating the usual upper left corner of the paper. “Wait. No. Here.” She indicated a space about a millimeter to the left of the original position. “No. Here.” She indicated a millimeter to the right of the first position. I kind of thought she was joking. She wasn’t. She made me pull staples and replace them in the EXACT correct position. Then, she made me re-copy and re-staple everything because there were tiny holes in the paper from the first set of staples. The whole time she berated me, saying, “I expected more from an English major!” All over – and I am not exaggerating – a millimeter difference in the placement of a staple that was in no way crucial to anything except her unmedicated OCD condition. I’m not even going into the whole coffee grounds incident! Suffice to say that, by the end of the day, I knew exactly where I wanted to put that staple.

Haven’t we all, at some point, had a boss who exhibited crazy behavior? My current one prides himself on being wildly inappropriate. He will invite me to lunch, or even dinner at his home (with wife, thank heavens!), in front of my co-worker, whom he excludes. He will invite me out to share his cigarette break, again explicitly excluding my co-worker. He openly says sexist things, or makes sexually explicit comments, but they are all in that gray area where he can plead ignorance or intellectual integrity or “all in good fun.” For instance, I once used the term “gender” and he went on and on and on about “why can’t you just say ‘sex’? Isn’t ‘sex’ enough? Doesn’t ‘sex’ say it all?” Even after I tried to explain the fine difference between “gender” and “sex,” and that I meant “gender,” he kept on to the point where I began to suspect that he just wanted to say “sex.” A lot. Loudly.

My theory is that he does all of this not in the interest of being titillating, but rather in the interest of being shocking and controversial. Sexual subjects are the easiest way for him to do that. He wants to be, and can be, the bad boy. I chalk it up to a generational difference, and to my belief that he is one of those men who never developed any social graces beyond the age of 12. Then, again, maybe I’m being age-ist in thinking that this guy would never actually make an earnest pass or overture because he is quite advanced in years being over twice my own age. I’ve made that mistake before. *

Plus, I’ve dealt with worse. One former boss was wildly inappropriate because he wanted what a friend of mine called “a work wife.” Then, there was the ex-advisor (who was kind of like a boss) who wanted what most people would call “a mistress” (or at least the illusion of having an affair with a student). So, I just deal with this current one, and try to use it to my advantage in the way of good suthun' ladies (which makes my own skin crawl). It takes quite a bit of energy out of me and, every now and then, I get really pissed that I have to deal with it at all.

The best thing that I’ve learned from dealing with my bad bosses is how to treat employees – should I ever actually have any. I also transfer this to dealing with students, or to anyone in a subordinate position to me. I know to make their task or job clear to them. I know to tell them what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, without belittling them. I know that their primary purpose is not to be my friend, or to be my audience, or to be my co-dependent in whatever my issue of the day is. They are not my substitute for a private life. I know that, if they are doing a task that I myself used to do, they will probably do it in their own way according to their own methods. As long as the result is what it needs to be, it doesn’t matter how they did it.

Finally, I also know that I have to be aware of what power I wield. I have found that many people who end up in a position of power, especially if they have an identified as being a person without power for a long period of time, have a difficult time accepting their role as a person with power. I know I do.

I doubt that any of these people that I’ve described here would admit that they have any significant power or authority in their subordinates’ lives because they identify power as being authoritarian and therefore bad. They like to see us all as friends, or as one big happy family; and, of course, you want a friendly, happy workplace. We are all essentially equals, in their mind. Just, some of us are more equal than others.

Still, refusal to recognize power seems to avoid responsibility when the boss behaves as badly as some do. The interaction goes from “I am using my position of authority to behave inappropriately to an essentially captive audience,” to one of “I am just acting silly, if they take offense, they need to get over it.” Their failure to see the power dynamic means that the burden of maintaining a proper office environment falls to the people who are not in a position to enforce that environment and who take a great risk in raising the issue in the first place.

I’m not saying that all of these bad bosses are bad people (only one – see “wants mistress”). I have no idea how I would fare in the same position. As my dad pointed out, nowhere do you learn how to be a good boss. Maybe in a management course? Maybe in business school? Mostly by trial and error in the real world. There, a certain measure of self-awareness is always necessary for improvement; and self-awareness is much harder to find that you would imagine.

*Yes, I am aware that I am treading on that line between what can be public and what should be kept private; and that I am wading into that territory where I could be called a coward for bitching under a pseudonym. Let's just say that this person's reputation precedes him, so I'm not saying anything new. I'm also not comfortable with the "report him or STFU" solution because that seems too "all or nothing." Like many things that I write here, I'm just trying to find the big picture in my bitching.


Ed Darrell said...

Once upon a time, when I had a very large staff, I objected to being called "boss." Everything went fine until I pulled some particularly galling gaffe of bossiness. For the next couple of days everybody ended conversations with "yes, Boss!" One of my directors told me directly that she'd keep it up until I made amends, which I did promptly.

Damn that was a great staff! Once they knew I did't want to be pompous, they kept me from it. I'd love to work with those people again.

Clio Bluestocking said...

That's hilarious! A staff that could do that seems to be a pretty good team.

vasanth said...

I am sure happy to read this - could being a boss ever be simple - the human angle doesn't ever disappear. One tends to like some of the employees on a purely subjective basis.....

It's fun to read your views.


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