3 minute read

My employees make me want to pull out my hair

Oct 2, 2020 | 0 comments

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 report experiencing more workplace stress, more burnout, poorer work-life balance, and worse physical well-being than the individuals they manage.[i]

So take heart – you’re not alone. For most managers, it’s a stressful 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 this difficulty—probably most of it—could be due to the fact that 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 requires are two completely different things.

If nothing else, as a manager, you probably believe 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 – this is all up to you to decide (or at least approve), not your ‘subordinates.’ And that’s just how things have to be if your organization is have even a chance of succeeding. Otherwise, organizational chaos—and ultimately commercial failure—are sure to be the result. Right?

In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the best available research,[ii] ‘good management’ is just the opposite. 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.

Again, the one thing you might think you know about managing is wrong.

The logic here isn’t hard to follow. Engaged or ‘enthusiastic’ employees are demonstrably more productive than their less motivated counterparts (up to 40% more, by some measures[iii]). This gives the businesses they work for an advantage in a competitive marketplace. The key then is getting the hoped for levels of enthusiasm 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.”[iv]

If you think about it, though, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. Just about your own career. Can you honestly say you’d be happier 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 prefer someone who merely sees you as a pair of hands to do his/her bidding? Or would you be more engaged—and therefore more productive—with a manager who recognizes your unique skills, sees you as intelligent and capable of making your own decisions, and appreciates your creative contributions to organizational goals?

I certainly know who I’d rather work for.

Nevertheless, this is not how most people—managers and employees alike—view the management function. A top-down, ‘command-and-control’-type style is still widely assumed to be the best way, if not only way to manage any for-profit business. Yes – there is an increasing awareness and appreciation of so-called ‘employee ‘empowerment,’ and it’s many organizational benefits. But your peers, business schools, MBA programs, most of the management advice literature, and probably your own boss all probably subscribe to a traditional, hierarchical approach to managing. That means you’re the boss. Unfortunately for everyone involved, however, it’s 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 your hair. After all, it’s not really your fault.

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

[i] Clifton, J. & Harter, J. 2019. It’s the Manager, New York: Gallup Press.

[ii] Research by Google, The Gallup Organization, Harvard, and associated with The Wharton School might be cited here, amongst numerous other studies. 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.

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

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


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