I know an executive who makes his associates work 24/7. Oh, you know him, too? The arrogant, or ignorant, or insecure one who parallel-paths every workstream with the sort of fast and loose inefficiency that makes you want to weep in your sleep?
But this story is not about him. This story is about you–the mid-level manager who gets sent in to do the dirty work whenever executive’s huevos are too full, and he doesn’t want to be seen as “the bad guy.”
Today you sit with a group of young, red-eyed associates. Your mandate is to yell. To teach these darling fledglings that blinking an eyelash on Saturday at midnight over a false deadline after enduring a grueling work week is unacceptable. In fact, no eyelash-batting shall be permitted ever since “Excellence demands unwavering focus.”
How do you approach it? What do you do?
You surprise us. You don’t bring up the executive order. Not a peep. You know the mere mention will cause more harm than good. You tell us, “I care for your well-being.” You explain that sometimes people lose sight of the big picture. That they grow hardened by the pressures around them.
You apologize. You admit you may have once behaved in such a manner. You thank us for our continued service. You ask us to be open with you if something bothers us. You tell us, “I am honored to have you by my side, and to be by yours.”
When finished, you run out and buy a cup of chamomile tea.
You return to your huevos del diablo of an executive. You hand him the tea, and say, “For you, on me.”
He nods. You nod back. You say, “It’s done.”
Ladies and gentleman, this is what we call a paradigm shift. It is how you change the culture of your company in a single moment.
Yes, in a single moment you set the example of “what good looks like” and it cascades. And, for the first time in what feels like eons, your team feels appreciated. And they work more happily and more efficiently than they ever have.
So, how do you go from henchman to hero in the workplace exactly?
- Use your own moral compass to guide your behavior, regardless of the opposition you face. You don’t need to fight the bully. Start by not letting yourself become the bully.
- Step in to help a failing co-worker through coaching, training, redirection, or chamomile tea, particularly when others would rather add insult to injury. And by the way, some call “redirection” “firing” or “sorting.” I like to think of it as helping a tourist find his way around the map, so he can figure out how to get to where he wants to go because you never know when you’ll be lost in a foreign city. It happens to the best of us.
- Acknowledge that how we individually see the world is unique and deeply personal. How you experience life matters just as much as how I experience it. The better we consider, console, and celebrate each other, the more passionate we grow. We innovate. We make more money. We live longer. We live healthier. We live happier.
- Give credit where credit’s due. For hard work. For excellent work. For a new haircut. For a cool shirt. For a sassy dress. For a hilarious joke. For a thought-provoking question. For a tasty sandwich. For a nice tie. It doesn’t matter what. All that matters is you mean it.
Now that we’re on the same page, I’ll go first, and then you …
Thank you, mid-level manager, for your “insubordinate act” of workplace kindness. You gave me an opportunity to write this piece, which is a mostly true story.
Do you know someone that could use a kudos? An average person in need of a smile? An extraordinary person that deserves a shout-out? An executive del diablo that could use a cup of chamomile? Share this blog. Make their day.
Everyone remembers that scene in Meet the Parents when Ben Stiller makes a sweeping generalization about being able to milk anything with nipples, and Robert De Niro hilariously responds, “I have nipples, Greg, could you milk me?”*
That’s the thing about sweeping generalizations. They’re only true sometimes. Sure, I happen to be a breastfeeding mom, and yes, you can milk me. (Well, not you specifically.) But that’s beside the point.
The point is this: people who don’t know me are speaking on my behalf. They are sharing studies in which I did not participate. They claim to understand my values. All because I was a young adult in the year 2000.
Before I continue, I know what you are thinking. “Oh goody, another entitled millennial speaks up.” And to this, I roll my eyes and say, “indulge me.”
With the loot companies are spending on unlocking the secrets of my enigmatic soul, why not? Better you hear it from the horse’s mouth. Heck, maybe we can work something out. After all, I am somewhat of an expert in all things me, and you are a brilliant and open-minded business guru.
So, without further ado, here are 15 requests I’d like to make of all employers, bosses, and the working community at large:
1. See me for what I bring to the table and not what an arbitrary number of years of experience says about me. Be honest; you have too much work to do, and your HR person posted a generic job description he found on the Internet. I have strengths and abilities that surpass generic job roles. Get to know me, and I’ll get to know you. I’ll learn your challenges; you’ll learn mine. Together, we’ll design a role that optimizes for our strengths and mitigates against our weaknesses. Let’s get that work done.
2. Hierarchy matters, particularly in large companies. So does meritocracy. Hierarchy is designed to turn chaos into order. And meritocracy ensures that those who carry the knowledge are making the decisions. Meritocracy is not merely a credential. It’s what makes you credible–like living in the weeds on a project, even as a junior. Know the difference. Apply what makes sense. Respect all.
3. Sometimes it’s not your talent that gets the job done; it’s your high-ranking title. I’ll say it again. It’s your high-ranking title. If you are my supervisor and I engaged you for your title, please don’t get confused. The work is in good shape, except that an individual or protocol is blocking forward progress. Please help remove this roadblock by making the phone call or sending the email that I scripted for you. Don’t get me wrong, you are talented, but I need you to understand the distinction between needing you for your rank and needing you for your expertise. In most cases, someone else’s ego is blocking the progress of your project, and I simply need you to pull rank so we can move forward. I am happy to talk through it with you for as long as it takes.
4. Don’t put me down for asking you to clarify the logic behind a decision. Clarify. Let’s get in sync. My curiosity is not an attack on your intelligence. It’s why you hired me.
5. Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. A person can be both kind and strong at the same time.
6. Don’t mistake my directness for insubordination. A person can be both honest and deferential at the same time.
7. Let me work where I will be the most productive. I’m not cattle, I don’t need to be herded into a bullpen. I’m not a convict, I don’t need to be watched. Work is not jail, nor is it Studio 54. If my work requires solitude, and you park me in a cube next to the loudest person you know, I won’t be able to give you the quality you are looking for. It might be cool to have a big open office, but it’s not cool to put me in the middle of a call center when I am tasked with writing 100 pages of legal fine print. And if I’m sitting alone in an office with no windows when I am tasked with identifying patterns of social behavior, there will be a lot of guesswork involved. Personally, I’d like an office with real doors, quiet, and a window, so I can turn my thoughts into something tangible. But I know that’s not always available. Hey, I didn’t say you needed to own the real estate. Flexibility goes a long way.
8. Allow me to eat lunch at lunchtime, and go to the bathroom when the urge beckons. Your meeting is important. My health is important, too. Don’t force me to choose between my health and your meeting. Be courteous.
9. Leverage my abilities. My strengths are your assets, not your enemies. Treat me like how I operate and what I am capable of, and not what my title says about me. (Remember what we discussed earlier about job roles being copied from the Internet?)
10. If a policy or process doesn’t make sense, help me break it gracefully, and let’s fix it so it does. We can do it by committee. We can do it on our own. Rules are made to solve problems, not to create them. I can do the work alone, but I need you to have my back.
11. Pay me what I am worth. It’s the right thing to do, even if you are not being paid what you are worth. I will carry you on a pedestal and lift you while I climb.
12. If I make a mistake or am failing in some way, tell me immediately and politely. I will address and correct it. There is no bigger way you can fail me than by withholding important information about my performance. I don’t like ketchup on my face, just as much as you don’t like walking around with your fly down. But you don’t need to shame me either. If I’m busy feeling lousy about myself, I won’t be focused on the goal.
13. Don’t lie or gossip behind my back. Let me rephrase that, please be honest with me.
14. Trust that what I am telling you is true, especially when we have a history of trust between us.
15. Finally, the only way you will ever know what motivates me and benefits you is through deep listening. Ask yourself: Am I being open-minded? How am I being open-minded? Am I asking the right questions? Care about my well-being as though I am your dearest friend. In return, I will do the same for you, and we will flourish.
As my friend Colin commented, “What I wonder is, do these differ greatly from what baby boomers wanted at our age? It seems these things can be summarized in ‘treat me with the respect that should be afforded to all other humans.'”
Sure, I may use the Internet to research products before I make purchases, and am skeptical of advertising, but fundamentally, we’re not so different, you and I. Yes, the Internet changed the world. That’s what technology does. And who wouldn’t be skeptical of an industry that told us cigarette smoking was good for our health?
The fact is we’re growing smarter together, thanks to you. You taught us to lean in. To throw some skin in the game. To care about making the world better.
I hear you. I’m with you.
Author: Tara Makhmali
Contributors: Evan Fensterstock, Nika Makhmali, Colin Regnier
*Meet the Parents. Dir. Jay Roach. Perf. Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Teri Polo. 2000. Universal Studios. Video, 2001. DVD.
Do you agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts and comments.