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, and I don’t have much left! Thoughts? – Name Withheld

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

So take heart – you’re not alone. For most managers, it’s a trying experience.

And for good reason. It’s time-consuming, emotionally draining, tough to do well, and demanding even when you do get it right. Undoubtedly you are well aware of this. What you may not realize, however, is that much of your frustration—maybe even most of it—can 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 it takes to be a ‘good manager,’ and what it actually takes are two completely different things.

Look at it this way:

If nothing else, as a manager, you understand 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. And this is how things have to be if your organization is have even a chance of succeeding. The alternative would seem to be organizational chaos, and business failure.

In fact, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the best available research, 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. Studies conducted by Google, Gallup, Harvard, and research associated with the Wharton School all suggest as much.[2]

Not that the logic is terrible hard to follow. Motivated and engaged employees are demonstrably more productive than their less enthusiastic counterparts; up to 40% more, by some measures.[3] This gives the businesses they work for an advantage in a competitive marketplace. The key then is getting these hoped for levels of engagement from your employees – and that’s best achieved by listening to, supporting, and giving your employees the things they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Or, as one study bluntly put it, managers are more effective when they ‘give employees what they want.’[4]

Think about your own career for a moment. Can you honestly say you’ve been happier working for managers who are controlling and punitive, as opposed to someone who listened to you, and supported you in your work? Would you really rather be managed by someone who sees you simply as a pair of hands to do his/her bidding? Or would you prefer—and therefore be more engaged, and consequently more productive—working for a manager who appreciates your unique skills and aptitudes, recognizes your contributions, sees you as intelligent and capable, and listens to, and takes your opinion seriously? (I certainly know who I’d rather work for.)

Unfortunately, however, this awareness has not yet made its way into most people’s—managers and employees alike—understanding and appreciation of what ‘good management’ is.

Despite their own obvious preference for a manager who support them, most people still expect to see a top-down, ‘command-and-control’-type approach to management at their places of employment. Managers tell, employees do; that’s the assumption. Yes – there is a growing awareness of the benefits of so-called ‘employee empowerment’—that is, allowing workers a degree of decision-making freedom, and some self-control over their job. Otherwise it’s management according to the principles of hierarchy, which means that you’re the boss.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that not nearly as effective as behaving as if your employees are the boss of you.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. And certainly don’t tear out all your hair. It’s not really your fault. How were you to know that the one thing you probably think you know about managing is wrong?


[1] According to the same study, the 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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