The Best Managers Remember Back When They Weren’t Managers

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Nov 6, 2014

One thing I’ve noticed about some managers is how completely they seem to have forgotten what it’s like to not be a manager.

More money and more power? More severe amnesia.

Case in point: I once worked for a company that had a policy of retroactively calculating pay increases — a practice I’d always viewed with mixed emotions.

Suspicions confirmed

On the one hand, no matter how long after the due date an evaluation was received (in some cases reviews were as late as nine months), if the employee had earned an increase, he’d get every dime of it.

On the other hand, I suspected the policy encouraged lateness and a certain que sera sera attitude about performance management.

And then one day my suspicions were spectacularly confirmed.

Out of time and out of touch

My co-workers were beginning to complain that something needed to be done. Reviews were weeks late, and these employees were past the “getting antsy” stage.

I didn’t blame them. A late review is problematic for a bunch of reasons.

For one, it’s not very practical. Suggestions for improvement don’t mean a whole lot when all sorts of time has passed since the first occurrence of the offending behavior and the present day, and no mention of the behavior in between.

And while expressions of thanks for a job well done are usually welcome, even these tend to be anti-climatic when given weeks (or months) after the fact.

Of course, when feedback is ongoing, late reviews are less troublesome, assuming the review is in line with the feedback. But come on! How many managers perpetually and egregiously late with annual reviews are providing ongoing feedback?

Not too many, is my guess. Certainly that was true for the manager in question here, who also happened to be my boss.

Telling the boss what he doesn’t want to hear

So, my co-workers came to me complaining about our boss (I was their HR rep, after all), and I wasn’t sure how to help them, because the boss’ boss wouldn’t hold anyone accountable, and that right there was a huge part of the problem.

One helping of “persuasion with a side order of guilt” coming right up!

I went to my boss, and he didn’t want to hear how employees were upset about their late reviews. He didn’t care if his casual attitude was causing his staff to wonder whether they matter. He wasn’t convinced his neglect was an issue.

And then he says it — with a scowl and rather scornfully, I might add:

What does it matter!? The raises are retroactive.”

Sometimes it takes some tough talk

Now for the most part, these were employees earning modest incomes. They’d worked hard during the year, and they wanted their rewards. Retroactive my foot. I found the boss’s attitude deplorable, and I let him know it (in so many words).

I said, “With all due respect, if that’s what you believe, you’ve been making too much money for too long.”

I know, it was ballsy, especially considering we both knew I knew my boss’ salary. (Not that I needed the information to form my opinion. I didn’t.)

Well, the boss gave me a look, but then he did get these reviews done. Hallelujah.

The best managers remember when …

I could write about the workplace for 150 years, and you’ll never, EVER hear me say that any employer, anywhere, is obligated to pay his employees on the basis of their economic need. Not ever.

However, we aren’t talking about that. My co-workers had done their jobs. Our boss simply refused to do his.

Not cool. Plus, he justified his actions by claiming it wasn’t important, because eventually the company would make these employees whole. Again, not cool.

So listen — stuff happens. Deadlines are missed and priorities shift. I get it. I also get that my boss didn’t report to me. None of that is the point.

No, the point is that the best managers remember when they weren’t managers.

They remember looking forward to even small pay increases, or how good it felt when the boss acknowledged a decent job, or how bad it felt to be disregarded and ultimately dismissed simply because someone could.

The force that moves business forward

Last year, Forbes published an article titled Why Empathy Is the Force That Moves Business Forward.

In it, the author wrote:

When businesses fail, it is often because leaders have stopped focusing on understanding their environment intimately and instead stay insulated in their own operations. Successful business leaders are receptive to disruption and innately aware of what is going on in their organizations both internally and externally… If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward.”

I think this makes a lot of sense, and I know my boss’ lack of empathy (not merely in this instance, but overall) played a part in the department’s dysfunction and impeded productivity.

Empathy as a business strategy

And you know what’s also true? Healthy levels of empathy propel good business strategy.

Without knowing what someone is likely to care about, or how he’s likely to react in a given situation, how can one possibly plan effectively when all one plans involve people and how they are or aren’t likely to behave?

Hopefully that’s a question your leaders will never have to answer.