Indeed, while working for one of the bad bosses I wrote about in my last column, she consistently gave me dismissive or explosive criticism without clear direction, and assigned me the equivalent of four employees’ workloads, which regularly bled into my weekends. Near the end of my time at this company, my then-boss revealed she took a heavy-handed approach to managing me because she thought I was capable of reaching greater heights.
My immediate thought? Only someone who doesn’t know how to manage would say something so misguided.
At this point in my career, I’d been working full-time in my industry for nearly a decade, including management-level roles across North America. So, not only did I have experience as a manager myself, I also knew how I liked to be managed, as well as the kind of management style that brought out the best in me and my work.
My former boss’ revelation told me two things:
1) She didn’t observe and therefore understand how I work most productively.
2) She didn’t know how to motivate me, which ultimately damaged our relationship.
Mounds of research suggests that coaching your direct reports and tailoring your management style to the individual gets the best results out of employees. The most effective managers are like attentive parents or coaches on a sports team — employees get more autonomy when playing to their strengths, but when it comes to weaknesses, managers take a more supportive, hands-on approach to help employees fill in gaps.
That approach is endorsed by Google’s Project Oxygen, a program designed to help its employees become better managers. By 2012, three years after its launch, Google’s managers showed statistically significant improvements in their performance. The company’s highest-scoring managers shared 10 common behaviours, the top two of which are: being an effective coach and knowing how to empower their team without micromanaging.
Coaching is especially desirable among gen Zs, with more than 75 per cent saying that a boss’ ability to coach is important, according to this 2019 survey. What’s more, 25 per cent said they’d leave an organization over a boss who manages through fear. These results are echoed in the 2019 study, Meet Gen Z, which says 32 per cent of gen Zs are motivated to work harder and stay longer at a company if they have a supportive manager; meanwhile, 37 per cent said they’d never tolerate an unsupportive manager. The youngest working generation also cited trust, support and care as their top three leadership traits.
If we apply the parenting analogy to management, we can learn a lot from how Inuit parents raise their children. One Harvard researcher who persuaded an Inuit family to “adopt her” in the 1960s observed that adults who showed even a little bit of anger were considered weak and childish.
I’m a millennial, but these findings apply to me, too. I immediately lose respect for any manager that uses fear to control their direct reports. At best, I see it as an approach used by those who don’t have the knowledge and tools to manage effectively; at worst, I view it as childish or a character flaw.
On the flip side, communication is a two-way street. Learning how to manage up is an essential skill. So, if your professional needs aren’t being met in a way that negatively impacts the quality of your work, you should:
Address issues with your boss as they come up, so negative feelings don’t fester.
Document the instances where you felt unsupported in your work, so when you chat with your boss, you’ll have concrete data to reference.
When discussing issues with your boss, don’t cite your personal desires, but instead emphasize the impact on company performance if action isn’t taken.
Be clear about your preferences when communicating and problem-solving, but if it’s not a big deal, accommodate your manager’s style (everyone has their quirks).
If you do all of the above and circumstances still don’t change, or if your manager remains incompentent or abusive, then leave.
Kim Scott, author of the best-selling management book Radical Candor, describes four main management styles divided into quadrants. “Caring personally” is on the vertical axis, while “challenging directly” is on the horizontal axis.
The best management style, according to Scott, is radical candor; this involves demonstrating that you care about your reports, which makes it easier to give them direct, critical feedback.
My former boss’ style, on the other hand, was a combination of obnoxious aggression (challenging directly without caring personally) and manipulative insincerity (neither challenging directly nor caring personally). The last style — and one that I’ve been guilty of in the past — is ruinous empathy, which involves caring personally but not challenging directly.
Despite overwhelming research that proves its ineffectiveness, the number of bosses who have an angry, fear-based approach to management is still widespread. But this style is on borrowed time, given the increasing number of young workers who not only know better, but also know what’s better for them. I say good riddance.
Anita Li is a media strategist and consultant with a decade of experience as a multi-platform journalist at outlets across North America. She is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and Centennial College. She is the co-founder of Canadian Journalists of Colour, a rapidly growing network of BIPOC media-makers in Canada, as well as a member of the 2020-21 Online News Association board of directors. You can subscribe to The Other Wave, her newsletter about challenging the status quo in journalism.