Please complete this sentence: “Being a manager is like being a….” The answers and explanations my students wrote in an exercise at the end of my summer and fall Management classes in “Organizational Behavior” were revealing and challenging. The results confirmed what I have stressed not to do: treat the workplace as family and assume roles similar to being a parent or expecting to be managed by someone as if they were a parent.
Out of fifty-two total responses from students in my two classes, sixteen responses were tied into family. The responses I received in the fall were very similar to those in the summer class. Of the 16 ‘family’ responses, 56% used the term ‘parent’ or ‘parents;’ 31% used the term ‘moms;’ and 12% used the term ‘dad’ or ‘father.’ The disclaimer I want to make is that these were my students’ first responses; yet, based on classroom discussions and behaviors, I feel that is what they truly believe.
The demographics of the responses are also interesting. Out of 16 responses that included family, 14 or 88% were from women who feel that some form of parenting is the equivalent of being a manager. From my perspective and experience, that is the challenge that women need to overcome in order to be a truly effective, business oriented, and successful manager.
There was another reference to family but this student wrote, “Being a manager is like being a kid/child because children always want to learn new things or why things work a certain way. Being a manager requires on-going learning and some fun enjoyment.” This student provided a succinct and on-target summary of the openness a manager must possess to experience the many changes that impact organizations.
Some of the explanations for ‘family’ responses included the following:
“Like a parent, you’re always pushing your kids or employees to be better. You supervise their actions and serve as a support system for them when they require it.”
“To be effective requires organizational skills. Each of your employees has individual needs that have to be tended to. An ignored employee can sometimes act out in a cry for attention. It’s very important to be strong during times of tribulation because everyone depends on you to be the leader.”
“A manager is not someone with a position; he/she is someone who puts in time and effort to care for what they are managing.”
“You are responsible for a group of employees who are like a family.”
There were other similes that were quite interesting but I was most interested in the ones related to parenting. These need to be addressed because of the use and concept of a ‘family’ orientation to the workplace especially by women. I’m not anti-family by any means; however, I feel that women can ‘care’ too much and avoid ‘taking charge.’ And that you can create close relationships in the workplace without reference to a family (see my post on “Managing with Julia” about a thoughtful and caring manager).
Point #1: A family orientation to the workplace is flawed because the bottom line is at stake. You are employed as a manager to invest in and lead personnel to realize the company’s goals and produce outstanding performance and/or products that will reflect positively on financial returns. Unlike a long-term relationship with family, an individual has deadlines to reach and a career to develop that could take you to another company.
Point #2: You can’t be fired from your family. You can be fired from work. Your manager’s job is not dedicated to caring for you. Your manager’s job is to get the most that he or she can from you. And you, as the manager of another level, need to get the most out of your employees. Those in their 20’s and 30’s might long for a warm, cozy company environment—and they are out there. There are also companies out there that are focused on results first and then on how to engage and develop their staff. Then comes the well-being part. If you come in stoned or drunk (as some of my students seemed to do at the end of a class), you can be helped through and employee assistance program or suggested counseling but if there is continued similar behavior you can be terminated immediately. A parent or other family could seek help for you and possibly provide support while you looked for another job.
Point #3: Not all mom and dads are wonderful people. They can be alcoholics, abusive, neglectful, and uncaring. Raising or imagining the idea that a manager will be a good ‘parent’ to you—or that you will always be a ‘good disciplinarian’ to adults the way you would to a child—is to be in denial of the role of a manager. A manager’s first priority is not your welfare; a manager’s first priority is to the welfare of a larger organization. One of my executive coaching clients was having difficulty feeling respected by her manager, the president of the company. After a difficult encounter that triggered memories of her abusive father, she asked me if I thought it was a good idea to tell her manager that he was like her father. “No, no, no,” I said maybe not in those words but in that intent and emphasis. It is not appropriate to bring in your past and expect sympathy or for your manager’s behavior to change. My client was not close to the president outside of work so needed to stick with her role as an executive who was not fulfilling her job responsibilities and the expectations of the president of the company.
Point #4: Family businesses can be just that: a business that is run by family members. A family company that’s growing moves from the entrepreneurial and collectively stages demonstrating a growing consistency in behaviors, formalization and control take over. The internal dynamics within the company can change dramatically when the top layers of management are removed from the customer service associates or production workers. And there are complicated employment laws to regulate the behaviors and performances of employees. A family business can stop feeling like a close family.
Point #5: Your colleagues are not your friends in the workplace. Friendship is built up over time and space to learn about each other. You may get along fabulously with co-workers and socialize with them after work. Yet, if the situation develops, they are also obligated to taking action in the company’s interests and not yours. And, when you are promoted to being the manager or a group leader, you need to keep a respectful distance from your ‘friends’ as you are the person charged with performance and bottom line responsibilities.
Being a manager is like working to be a leader. You learn from doing and from listening to those around you and vicariously modeling those you respect and trust. This person could be a parent. Yet, I strongly suggest you frame a manager in a professional context, one that takes into account the well-being of ‘staff’ while at the same time demonstrating optimal performance, like one of my summer students described.
“Being a manager is like being a pilot. You attend aviation school and you are given a manual to study. It is obviously the basic guidelines you are to follow. However, in case of emergency, the final decision rests with you. No matter what the air tower traffic controller says, the pilot does what is best as in the case of Sully Sullivan who landed his plane in the Hudson River. The important thing is that everyone is alive.”
A manager’s job is keeping everyone alive with energy and enthusiasm to do their best as individuals and to do the best for their organization.