advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My employees make me want to pull out my hair

I’m a manager at a small biotech company. I have four employees reporting to me at the moment, and for the most part they’re great. But some days they make me want to pull out all of my hair! – Name Withheld

According to The Gallup Organization, managers actually report experiencing more workplace stress than the individuals they manage.[1]

This is for good reason. It’s time-consuming, emotionally draining, tough to do well, and demanding even when you do get it right. No doubt you are well aware of this.

What you may not realize, however, is that much of your frustration—maybe even most of it—can ultimately be attributed to the following:

The one thing you probably think you know about managing is wrong.

Let me say that again.

What most of people think being a “good manager” means, and what it actually takes to be one, are two completely different things.

Look at it this way:

If nothing else, as a manager, you probably think that you are in charge. You’re “the boss,” in other words – which means you do the telling, while your employees do the listening, and then the doing. What to do, how to do it, and by when – that’s all up to you to decide (or at least approve), not those you manage. This is just how things have to be, you probably think – or at least if your organization is to have even a chance of succeeding. The alternative would seem to be a recipe for chaos, and organizational disaster.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the best available evidence, managers are far more effective—and their organizations are far more profitable—when they behave as if their employees are in charge of them, not the other way around. Research by Google, Gallup, Harvard, and a study associated with the Wharton School have all demonstrated as much.[2]

Not that the logic is at all hard to follow.

Consider that motivated and engaged employees are measurably more productive than their less enthusiastic counterparts. Up to 40% more by one estimate.[3] This gives the businesses they work for an advantage over their more poorly managed rivals. The key then is getting these hoped for levels of engagement from employees – and that’s best achieved by listening to, supporting, and giving employees the things they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Or, as one study bluntly puts it, managers are more effective when they “give employees what they want.”[4]

But you really don’t need some study to tell you this, do you?

I mean, think about your own career for a moment. Can you honestly say you’d prefer working for a manager who is controlling and punitive, as opposed to someone who listens to you, and supports you in your work? Would you really rather have a manager who focuses on monitoring your performance, perhaps even waits for you to screw up (so they can “manage” you)? Or someone who acts on what you say, and gets you things you need to do your job to the best of your ability? I certainly know who I’d rather have – and ultimately be willing to work harder for.

Unfortunately, most managers don’t see things this way. They behave in ways consistent with the top-down, command-and-control, “manager in charge”-style of managing that’s been around forever…and that most of us are likely tired of.

It’s a shame, because it’s this mentality that’s holding so many organizations back. Managing this way demeans employees, impedes their performance, and makes our jobs needlessly annoying and/or demoralizing. And no less significantly, it ensures that most organizations will never reach their full potential.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. And certainly don’t tear out your hair.

It’s not really your fault, is it?

How were you to know that the one thing you probably think you know about managing is wrong?


[1] According to the same study, managers also experience more burnout, poorer work-life balance, and worse physical well-being. See: Clifton, J. & Harter, J. 2019. It’s the Manager, New York: Gallup Press.

[2] Google’s Project Oxygen report is available as a free download at the company’s website. See also: Wagner, R. & Harter, J. 2006. 12, The Elements of Great Managing, New York: Gallup Press; Hill, L. 2003. Becoming a Manager, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press; Sirota, D., Mischkind, L. A. & Meltzer, M. I. 2005. The Enthusiastic Employee, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

[3] Pfeffer, J. 1998. The Human Equation, Boston: Harvard Business School.

[4] Sirota, D., Mischkind, L. A. & Meltzer, M. I. 2005. The Enthusiastic Employee, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

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