Much More & Much Less Than a Boss

Events happen every day reminding me that I am living in times of profound transition. A couple weeks ago something happened at my work that was a harbinger of a continuing cultural transition from hierarchy to a circle of equals, from patriarchy to partnership, from power-over to power-with, or from directive to facilitative leadership… however you want to frame it.

I have been at my current workplace for over a year now, and I work with a great group of people and have a very progressive and egalitarian team manager. I’d call him the more colloquial “boss”, but many of the standard connotations of that term do not fit this person at all. In the anecdote I want to highlight in this piece, he led us through an exercise the other day that is typical of how he approaches his job but is stunning in terms of your typical hierarchical corporate culture.

He manages about 16 of us who make up our team, mostly project managers but also a few business analysts like me. I have only been with the company for a year and three others have joined the team since my arrival, but the rest of the team has perhaps a century of experience with the company between the dozen of them. As I said, it is a great group, to a person thoughtful, caring, not ego-involved and good at what they do. He (our manager) has only been managing the team for two years, so he inherited the twelve rather than hand-picking them himself.

Routinely he is all the things you could hope for and expect in a good “boss”. He cares about us, listens to and tries his best to act on our concerns. He always acknowledges us when we do good work and tries to put each of us in a position with the right resources and other support so we can be successful. It’s never about him and what he needs, but is instead about us as members of an effective team that supports our line of business.

But the other day he outdid himself in his never-ending quest for the pinnacle of facilitative rather than directive leadership. He asked our team to do a fairly high-stakes evaluation of his performance as a manager. The results of our review, particularly the areas where we felt he needed to improve his performance as our manager, would appear as significant items on his stated goals for the year ahead that he would be accountable for to his manager.

I have never worked with a manager who has done anything quite like this, and I’ve been blessed with many good managers and “bosses” over my 35 years in the full-time workforce. But he takes everything a step farther and I am constantly and pleasantly surprised, and try to “catch him doing something good” and let him know I appreciate his partnership ethics.

So here is the process (ah I love good process!) that he had us go through to do his evaluation. He had one of his manager peers join us for the one-hour session to facilitate and take down all the review items the team came up with. That person would build a spreadsheet with two columns, one labeled “Pluses” (positive items) and the other “Deltas” (areas for improvement). He would then leave the room and each of us would be charged with candidly calling out items for either column. But the interesting “catch” here, was that the team had to be in unanimous agreement on any item before it was put up on the list. Once we completed the process he would return to the room and he would review the list with us and ask questions as needed for clarification or make whatever comments he wanted to. (For items that could not reach that consensus he ask one of us to keep that list separately and share with him later as additional input.)

As a “process junkie” myself, based on my Unitarian-Universalist pedigree (see my post “Process is more Important than Content”, I found this an elegant little exercise. What ended up on his list of “Pluses” and “Deltas” would be items that the entire team had to stand behind; no one disgruntled individual or clique (if any) could torque the process. He would then synthesize the “Deltas” as items on his published goals for the year ahead for which he would be accountable to his manager. A year from now the team would go through this exercise again with him.

As I said above, my teammates and I are no shrinking violets and therefore were not going to collectively suck-up to our “boss”. But still, as a conscientious “process junkie”, I knew someone had to break the ice and call out the first potential “Delta” in order for the process to flow as it should; and I did so, calling out the issue that he had way too much on his plate which compromised his ability to optimally serve as our team’s manager.

I was somewhat surprised at first that there was so much consensus around the room on that point, and as the group continued to call out additional proposed “Pluses” and “Deltas”, all but one of the items achieved a unanimous vote in the room (after perhaps some tailoring). What emerged was a portrait of a manager who was overall seen as supportive, caring, and highly skilled and respected by his team.

But what also emerged, was that in trying to do more than one job (he was directly managing two projects besides managing this team) he was not following through on all the initiatives he launched and often was not available to provide us with that critical support getting cooperation from other teams when we needed it. Also, though he encouraged us to balance our own lives and not work beyond the parameters of a normal work week, he seemed to be living his own life out-of-balance, working too many hours himself, leading to his possible burnout and setting a bad example for the rest of us with his actions (though not with his words).

After completing our exercise and reviewing the list with him after his return to the room, he was duly gracious for the many kudos on his list but also acknowledged his challenges. As a highly talented and experienced corporate management type still relatively new to the company we work for, it is standard practice not to say “no” to anything that is suggested to go on your plate. He acknowledged that he had to learn to say “no” to some things so the other things he said “yes” to would be effectively accomplished. But given the conventional wisdom of the corporate world, he certainly had his work cut out for him.

Not to belabor the details, I want to pull back from the metaphorical trees to look at the forest as a whole. Here was a very humanistic corporate manager who was rededicating himself to facilitative (rather than directive) management. He respected his team members as professionals who knew how to do their jobs and he wanted to know how he could most effectively serve us, rather than framing things as to how we could best serve him.

This is the reality of “turning the org chart upside down”, something I have read or heard for more than a decade in books and seminars on the latest trends in management. In my opinion, it is evidence “on the ground” of the humble beginnings of a larger cultural transition from patriarchy to partnership, from hierarchy to a circle of equals.

Our manager’s actions in this regard are highly provocative in the larger context of his peers and levels of management above him. It was our manager who proposed to his manager that he was going to do this, not the other way around. Our manager’s actions put his own peers and all the hierarchical management structure above him on notice that maybe they should be more accountable to the people they manage as well. It is a profound challenge to a hierarchical organization nestled (for better or for worse) in the conventional wisdom of “command and control” management to contemplate being evaluated by those “underneath” on the org chart.

I don’t want to make too much out of this anecdote, but I also don’t want it to get lost in the weeds of an isolated incident. This was one of those moments when I had the privilege of feeling that I was part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I frame it as one small step toward dismantling a 5000-year-old hierarchical superstructure for society that has become archaic and is now holding us back from fully moving forward in this third millennium of the Common Era. (See my posts, “The Chalice and the Blade” and “Challenging Patriarchy”.)

2 replies on “Much More & Much Less Than a Boss”

  1. Hi Coop,
    The counterintuitiveness of these motivation research results boggles the mind. By the way, any idea why greater monetary reward results in poorer performance? Weird.


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