Most managers, leaders and business owners complain about (more or less) the same things:
All over the corporate world, while employees are busy complaining about their bosses, bosses are just as busy complaining about their employees. This is not only a broken family portrait, it’s also a huge waste of time. (It’s worth mentioning that, for the remainder of this article, I will use the words ‘boss’ and ‘manager’ interchangeably, with the purpose of avoiding a boredom crisis via repetition). And, as we dive into the whole thing, it’s worth saying it again: they all complain about (more or less) the same things.
What’s going on is that managers, leaders and business owners are expecting to find a balance, and that balance is nowhere to be found. But only because they aren’t doing anything to make it happen. In fact, they’re doing everything they shouldn’t be doing to create that balance. Let’s have a closer look.
Mangers have access to information that employees don’t. This operates both on an individual level (what your boss or manager knows about you) and on an organizational level (what your boss or manager knows about strategic plans and the course of the company). Think about it: from day one, managers knows their employees’ job description, how much money they make, who are their past employers, where they live, and a bunch of other things. Plus, they get to issue aptitude tests, so they also know how well their employees can do what they do. All of this data is considered a privilege that employees do not have: they don’t have an accurate depiction of what their boss’ job description is (it’s mostly up to guesswork), or how much money their boss makes, where they have worked, place of residence, or even if they are fit to do the job in the first place: this was determined by another manager, higher up on the chain.
So yes, a lot of information is in the hands of these managers, and almost none is in the hands of employees.
As if that wasn’t worrying enough, managers also get information about the strategic course of action of the company, sometimes because they get a say in it, and sometimes just because they are inside the “red circle”. This body of information that is handed to managers is justified in most organizations by saying that managers need to know, in order to make the right decisions. That makes sense, right?Well, it does in a centralized scheme; it does if you believe all decisions should be made by one person, who is in charge of a bunch of other people. They are, after all, the managers. In short, what we’re saying is that it makes sense for people who have to make decisions to have information that allows them to make a better decision, an informed decision.But let’s entertain a thought for a little while: What if the best way to make a decision wasn’t leaving it up to a single individual? Or what if that individual isn’t the better informed person on the team to make that call? Or what if it was sometimes like that but sometimes not? We’ll get back to this.
Another thing that disturbs the balance is that bosses are entitled to control, in the sense that they get to ask their employees what they’re up to, and they get to demand plans for the future, and in some cases I ran into, they actually demand futurology (but that’s a whole other story). But are employees allowed to set deadlines for their bosses? Nope. And do they get to inquire about latest activities and/or status of open issues? Certainly not. So here, once again, we see an imbalance.
The thinking behind this is that it makes sense for bosses to have control over things that will ultimately be their responsibility. The narrative goes like this: if managers are responsible for their subordinates’ work, they need some sort of mechanism that allows them to control the work of the team, since they will be called to answer for it. If you were expecting this explanation to “make sense”, sorry. This isn’t the case. What’s behind the curtain here is purely an issue of command and control.
Let’s keep piling it up: in these organizations, managers usually feel more confident and thus more comfortable speaking up than their subordinates, which screws up communication and distorts feedback loops. This has to do with consequences and repercussions that employees usually face, and bosses don’t, which leads to two possible scenarios:
It should be a no-brainer at this point, but just in case, the writing on the wall reads as follows: communication is the life and blood of a team. This, in turn, is intimately related to that first problem I mentioned, concerning the access to information, and it comes bearing the gift of contradiction: if the reason managers are granted access to information that employees don’t is so that they can use it to make decisions, but the information they’re getting is distorted or incomplete, their capabilities to make good decisions is severely disrupted. It all boils down to a pretty straightforward conclusion: breaking your organization's communication flow is basically poisoning the well.
That leaves us right in the neighborhood of another feature of most of these organizations where bosses complain about lack of commitment: bosses have much more autonomy to make decisions, while their subordinates have to check, double-check and often triple-check everything with their superiors. This justifies managers’ access to information, of course, but if they have bad or insufficient information, things get sour; and if they’re not well informed, their decisions actually harm the team and its productivity. So, if a decision has to be made on something that will directly affect you and the work you do everyday, would it be so crazy that you were involved in the decision making process?
Yet another factor involved in this imbalance is the fact that, in many of these organizations that complain about being chronically afflicted by a workforce that doesn’t commit is that managers get a share of the profits, a privilege that is typically off limits for employees. I find that this idea is best expressed by Gary Vaynerchuck in the following quote:
There is a common exception to this, common enough to be dismissed as an exception: startups have made it almost a tradition to offer their employees a participation in the company (that goes by many different names, like stocks, stock options, equity, etc.) in exchange for a lower salary. Even though it is an real way for employees to get a share in the company profits, it usually goes along with a set of constraints: employees either have to stay in the company for a certain amount of time, or they have to meet some performance goals, or the whole thing depends on the company meeting certain goals (sales, profits, earnings, what have you). And still, it doesn’t translate into a participation in the decision-making process, or a higher access to information, or autonomy to regulate their own work, or a voice in the strategic course of the company.
But the point remains unchanged: better performance resulting in a higher paycheck is a possible reality for managers, but not for employees, who almost always will depend on some other variable (individual, team-wide or even company-wide performance metrics, how long they’ve been working in the company, etc.).
So, we’ve gotten this far. At the beginning of this article we pointed out that, while employees are busy complaining about their bosses, bosses are just as busy complaining about their employees, and we then asked a very simple question: what is going on here?
We posited that there is an imbalance, not as an inexplicable cause for all our work-related miseries, but as a consequence of what we do and how we do it, and then we explored 5 dimensions where we usually see that imbalance take place between bosses and employees. We took that initial question and we’ve made an effort to provide an analysis that sheds some light on the matter and suggest plausible answers. And we’ve gotten this far.
If you are a manager, a leader, a boss or a business owner, things can go in two possible directions:
The first direction is a path of acknowledgement: you acknowledge the hard truth delivered by Gary Vaynerchuk, and accept not only that your employees won’t work as hard as you do, but also that they shouldn’t work as hard as you do because it is not their business: they don’t have as much information as you do, they don’t have as much control as you do, they don’t feel as confident as you do to speak up about things, they don’t have as much autonomy as you do to make decisions, and they don’t have the same stakes that you do, meaning that, if things go badly, they may lose their jobs, but if things go well, they’re not gonna get any richer. This is the path of the status quo. Down this path, you are just going to realize that this is how things are, and all that changes for you is that you understand why that is, and maybe complain a little bit less. Maybe. Most of you are going to go down this path, and if you’re reading this but you’re not a manager, I’m sorry to be the one to inform you that your manager is going to take this road.
The alternative is a path of real change. It is a harsh, ungrateful path, where one has to unfold many layers of past decisions and sunk costs, cut the patient open, and dig in to see where the pain is coming from. This path requires that we understand a solemn truth by Jacob M. Braude:
Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you'll understand what little chance you have in trying to change others.
So, the change begins indoors. If we are upset about this imbalance, and we should be, now that we have a model for understanding what that imbalance is made of, we can start building a new one by taking direct action on those 5 dimensions: give your employees more information, give them more control over the work to be done, create a safer space for them to feel confident and comfortable speaking up and laying crucial, relevant information on the table, give them more autonomy to decide over their work, and strive to create a real system for them to participate in your business.
No, this isn’t easy. But the alternative is to sit around, in pubs, coffee shops or any other venue, and complain about (more or less) the same things. We can do better than that. You can do better than that. It’s time we at least try.