If you think your bosses cause you problems, you're not alone. I've had plenty of tough bosses. In fact, I've worked for seven of the ten bosses rated by Fortune as the toughest in America. Once I really got to know them, though, they all turned out to be decent human beings.
In most cases, bosses are just human beings under a great deal of pressure. I've never had a "bad" -- or evil -- boss per se.
In the army, for example, I was an eager beaver. After I finished what I was supposed to be doing, I went to Corporal Nidel and asked, "What can I do now?" The corporal was having none of that. He told me to move all the rocks from one side of a road to the other side. When I finished that, I again asked what I could do. He told me to move the rocks back to their original position. Was Corporal Nidel a sadist? A bad boss? A power-monger? Not at all. The corporal was just a boss with a message to deliver. And that message was "Leave me alone, kid." I got the message.
Some bosses have been downright kind. In a public relations agency where I worked, I was supervised at one period by John O'Connell. O'Connell wrote up a strategy for positioning a client. I read it. I did some thinking. And I told O'Connell that his work "needed to be beefed up." The boss invited me to try my hand at the project. I sat at my typewriter -- all we had were trusty Selectrics in those days -- for hours, without writing a word. Finally I put something down. I gave it to O'Connell. He thanked me very much. However, he thought it "too sophisticated" for this client, he said. He was going to save it for another type of client. Years later I realized the material I gave him was terrible. I'm glad I had some bosses who allowed me to learn things on my own.
Successful people, I've found, don't waste their time badmouthing their bosses. There's no percentage in that -- and the bosses may find out about what you're saying. (There are moles in almost every organization.) Successful people accept the fact that bosses are a reality in their lives. They don't expect the boss to change. They understand that if they obtain too much power, the boss might not like that. So they maneuver themselves away from a power struggle with the boss. They recognize that the boss may have a lot of responsibility but little authority, and they're helpful with this situation. They're not afraid of the boss and know how to express their concerns diplomatically. They realize that some bosses just want to hang on until retirement, and they refrain from trying to force new perspectives on the boss. In short, successful people excel in the art of managing their bosses. There's no boss they can't manage.
Colleagues of mine, such as Bob S., who didn't accept the reality regarding bosses ended up with damn-with-faint-praise recommendations, embarrassing raises, and more stress than the rest of us faced. In addition, often they're the first ones let go in a layoff.
Another colleague, Beth R., thought she could ignore the bosses and just work around them. Bad idea. During her performance review, she was labeled "unmanageable" and put on probation.
Empowerment and All That
You might be thinking: "Yeah, that's how bosses were in your day, Bob, but things have changed."
Yes, we're hearing a lot about "empowerment" and "leaderless" teams and a "nonhierarchical workplace." But bosses aren't going away. That's because of the laws of accountability. Somebody has to be in charge. It's human nature to look to someone for leadership. When I obtain a new client, the first question I ask is: "Who's in charge?" When I meet the person or persons in charge, then I know how to handle the account -- because they have the power. Today, they may no longer act like they're the ones in charge. But the change is in the style of management. The change is not in the concept of power. Even though you might call your bosses "coaches" instead of bosses, they still have awesome power over you. They can fire you. They can promote you. They can make your life miserable.
Companies now hire human resources experts like Matt Weitz to help traditional bosses act more like coaches or facilitators rather than the deities they used to be. But don't kid yourself. No matter how they appear or act, no matter how nonhierarchial they may seem, no matter how much they praise you for your input, bosses are bosses are bosses.
Copyright © Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of The Critical 14 Years of Your Professional Life from which this piece was excerpted.
This piece was originally published in Smart Brief