Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"We're just talking"

is one of the things that one of my former bosses used to say when I was sitting in his office, catching up on various projects. If he felt I was holding back or carefully choosing my language or he wasn't getting the answers he wanted, he'd lean back and say, "We're just talking here."

I was sympathetic to his intention: the desire to clear the air, talk turkey, be candid, blunt, not mince words, stop all the bullshit. tell him what I really thought. (The very fact that we have so many expressions for this speech act is itself a sign of how much we we all want it and how hard it is to achieve).

I was sympathetic because I’m a boss myself and have said similar things to my own staff. But what I’ve found is that no matter how hard you try to transcend or side-step the boss-employee relationship, you really can't. You can't because the basic constitutive fact of the boss-employee relationship is that is an economic and not an emotional one: a boss-employee relationship, unlike a friend or loooover, is not really voluntary. To put it simply, and in a way we almost never do explicitly: our bosses are in control of our employment and income. And most of us believe that “just talking here” or telling our bosses what we really think isn't worth the risk to our livelihoods.

I've found the barrier one of the more maddening features of corporate life, far more unbreachable than the much-maligned gap between the sexes in a relationship. The notorious he-said, she-said problem is nothing, at least for me, compared to the structural barrier between boss and employee. This barrier is, of course, the source of a lot of the great comedy in the office. (e.g. Michael saying, "His salary isn't better, it's just different.")

And it's too bad. Because almost all of us have hungered for some straight talk either up or down the chain-of-command. And I've tried various strategies with my own staff, promising I wouldn't let their opinions or plans influence my decision making, confessing details about my own frustrations, but when push comes to shove (when we were negotiating for a raise, or I suspected they were exploring other "opportunities"), I was almost always treated along the lines of corporate conventions. They told me about their other job offer at precisely the same time everyone does, once they had the offer letter in their hands. And who can blame them? Why should they put their income at risk just because I want to have a little straight talk? The conventions are there for a reason.

I'm not suggesting you can't get along with your boss or even be friends. I know there is all kinds of conflicting advice on whether bosses and employees should be friends (like here and here. And now we even have the problem of our boss trying to friend us, blogged about here.) I like to think that I'm "friends" with some of my staff too, but it's a friendship of a certain kind with very particular limitations. You can tell because when the relationship shifts (i.e., they take another job) so do the terms of the relationship. We can suddenly talk more freely.
The economic reality of office relationships is one of the reasons I tend to resist the more sentimental descriptions of company life, the talk of the office community as “a family,” or even certain descriptions of what it means to be a mentor (but I’ll save that for another posting.) Even when the office is congenial and emotionally supportive, even when it’s so fun and warm that it feels like “a family” at times, it fundamentally is not. The simplest way to remember the difference: if for some reason you lost your job, your mom would probably take you in if necessary. Your boss, probably not.

So what to do? How do you create a platform for relatively honest dialogue between boss and staff without misrepresenting the reality of the relationship. I’m afraid I don’t have much original to say on the question. My biggest success has been an old-fashioned one developed by our wise founding fathers though often ignored by later administrations: separation of powers.

A key component separating powers is having a strong #2 who my staff feels they could tell things they couldn't tell me. Then she could alert me to potential issues with general guidance (X is overworked: Y needs their expectations reset; Z is ready to be promoted) without compromising their confidential discussions in any detail

This is hardly an ideal solution. For one thing, it requires that your staff trusts your#2 and for another, it doesn't help your #2 much, who still doesn't have anyone to complain to, but it's a start.

1 comment:

jonathan.fortescue said...


Won't expose how I learned about your blog unless you ask me. But the post is straight-up good. It's nice to be on the corporate side, isn't it. The money is better and it's actually very low on bullshit compared to the academy where we mistakenly cast our lot. Some day we should compare management secrets.