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OPINION

Bad, Bad Manager

Bad, Bad Manager

I have a friend who is a Chartered Accountant by vocation. At the beginning of his career, when he was doing his training for the ACA qualification with one of the Big 4 audit firms, he was powering through work and exams with relentless drive and an enthusiasm that was second to none. For the three years that his training lasted, he was under the tutelage of a mentor who was helping him with every aspect of his ACA traineeship, whether it pertained to a difficult-to-interpret section of the audit methodology, a tough-to-apply financial reporting Standard, or tips on how to pass the Case Study paper and switch from trainee to qualified Chartered Accountant.

The three years passed and my friend obtained the coveted qualification that came with his very own cubicle in the seemingly-endless open office plan at his firm’s humongous headquarters. He was also assigned a new mentor but he was told that he should see him more as an official manager rather than as a mentor in the way he had understood the term during his first three years with the firm.

Red flag number one.

Up to that point they hadn’t met up, so they arranged a meeting to go over things. My friend attended it with the same enthusiasm and zest that he had when he was doing his training. At the meeting, his new superior told him, among other things, that the ON/OFF period enjoyed as a trainee was now over and that a new era had dawned; one where the 9-to-5-to beyond work switch was always ON. He allowed no room for flexibility, nor would he put the matter up for discussion. He gave my friend the impression that he would be working on an assembly line, constantly moving parts from one process to the next, rather than for the prestigious organization that he proudly felt himself being part of.

Red flag number two. That was a big one.

My friend’s enthusiasm was not subdued as a result of this initial meeting. That happened many months later, when his assigned manager was micromanaging him in every way imaginable and was asking him to stay in the office until late, usually without there being a genuine need for it. Slowly but surely, my friend lost interest in what he had set out to do upon obtaining his qualification, that is to take the audit world by storm and make partner status before hitting 40. Any attempts to talk sense to his superior would clearly prove futile, nor there was any hope on the horizon of changing managers, so he lowered his head, rolled up his sleeves, and endured two years of workplace unhappiness, until his 5-year training contract lapsed, at which point he handed in his resignation and went in pursuit of a better workplace, meaning that he was actually looking for a better manager to work under.

Meanwhile, another friend of mine, who is about the same age as the aforementioned one and also a Chartered Accountant, was lucky enough to be working for a mentor/manager who enabled him to be the best professional he could be, throughout his traineeship and post-qualification career. That particular superior had only one rule (but a strict one, nevertheless): He didn’t care about the hours his subordinates were putting in; only what they were putting into those hours. He cared more about the end-result, the qualitative output, rather than the number of hours one clocked in, the quantitative showing of a commitment to the organisation which, more often than not, is artificial. He gave my friend total freedom of (professional) movement and he was always there for guidance whenever needed, so it was like having someone pushing you forward, instead of pushing you around.

Did I mention that this friend of mine became a partner at the age of 38?

Managers can make or break not only the careers of employees but also their health. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2008, and followed up a decade later, concluded that the more toxic a boss is, the higher the risk of his/her subordinates developing heart disease, 40% higher to be precise, compared to those working for a good and supportive manager. And to add hard fact to hypothesis, out of the 3,239 people studied in 2008, the follow-up revealed 74 reported cases of fatal and non-fatal heart disease events such as heart attack, cardiac arrest and unstable angina. Those are some sad statistics indeed but they are eye-opening too, and the fact that they were published internationally may act as a professional warning bell to all employees out there who put up with toxic bosses in fear of losing their jobs.

You know the saying “We don't get to choose our parents”. The same goes for our managers but it continues by stating that “We do get to choose how hard we're willing to work in order to make the best of what we're given”. Again, the same goes for our managers. One can work with whatever managerial hand one has been dealt, in order to make the best of the given situation. And if you happen to be stuck in one of those situations, working under the deleterious supervision of a toxic boss, here are five suggestions on how to make things better:

1. Set clear targets and lines of responsibility: Having a productive meeting, where targets and responsibilities are clearly discussed and mutually agreed upon, is the best way to avoid ending up with an expectation gap on either side. Keep notes of everything that’s said during the meeting and make sure to circulate a copy of the list of targets/expectations afterwards, so as to be able to revisit it frequently and make sure that both of you follow through on what has been said and agreed.
 
2. Prove yourself to your boss: One of the most effective ways to eliminate micromanagement is to prove to your line manager that you can do the job on your own, and you can do it effectively, at times better than when he is breathing down your neck. Eventually, and hopefully, he/she will understand that having a constant say in what you do is a silly waste of resources, from both ends.
 
3. Don’t quit (yet), but act as if you are close to doing so: If you are dangerously close to quitting…don’t! At least, not yet. Test the waters first, by giving the impression that you’ve had enough, you are fed up with the way you are being treated on the job, and that you are entertaining the idea of packing up shop. Most bad managers cannot afford to lose a good subordinate and, if they get a wake-up call that makes them realise that they face the possibility of losing their most valuable assets, they tend to…wake up and make amends in their behaviour. Just make sure to have a Plan B in place in terms of alternative employment, in case your manager calls your bluff! (See point 5 below) 
 
4. If your boss has a boss, talk to him/her: Don’t go overboard by running straight to the CEO and bombarding him with a barrage of derogatory comments about your manager. Instead, be well-prepared prior to your meeting by listing all those attributes that you consider to be in need of improvement, and present them to him/her with the best intentions in mind. Ask him/her to step in discreetly and try to mediate things, in a way that doesn’t leave you exposed, otherwise your attempt in making things better may backfire.
 
5. If all else fails, start looking elsewhere: This is a last-resort scenario, not too unlike the one experienced by my first friend above, who decided that his manager was beyond help when it came to remedying his managerial style and thus decided to resign as soon as his training contract allowed him to do so. Make no mistake, though – as he was typing his resignation letter on his corporate PC, he had already signed an employment contract with another organisation, thus making his career transition seamless. You really need to have a Plan B in place when you eventually quit, and the best time to start devising one is when you first come across red flags, similar to those in my friend’s story. You’ll know them when you see them.

When we are young and ambitious, we tend to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, at times a bit naively if I dare say so. As we progress in our careers, utopianism gives way to pragmatism, one blow at a time. There comes a point in this trajectory of ours, where we realize that the hours we spend in the office far exceed those we spend outside of it. And it is exactly at this point that we realize what an impact our managers have on the quality of our personal and professional lives, depending on the particular style they employ.

My second friend in this story was made a partner just shy of his 38th birthday – he has his first manager to thank for this. My first friend is now 39 and on his way to becoming CFO of the company in which he was employed after resigning from his first job. He considers the position equivalent to that of a partner in a Big 4 audit firm, so he is still on target as regards his career aspirations. He, too, has his first manager to thank for this.

I guess it can work both ways!

 

Info: Spyros Yiassemides BA MSc ACA is a Partner in Yiassemides & Co, a professional storyteller, and a natural-born cinephile. His PhD in Film Studies is just around the corner.

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