I was leading a brief discussion in a class the other day about handling criticism, and a friend came up to me afterward to share her story. She said she is constantly dealing with a hyper-critical boss, and it’s really starting to become an issue at work. No matter what my friend does, her supervisor is always critical. To make matters worse, the boss, also a woman, is considerably younger than my friend.
We talked for a few minutes about the best way to handle this situation, and as we talked I got the sense that the age difference may be a big part of the issue. I’ve observed many younger managers (this one is in her early 30’s) who seem to feel that the best way to command workplace respect is to be tough. Be the hard-nosed boss. Don’t cut your people any slack. I’m sure like many of us she was advised by someone early on not to “get too close” to the people you supervise. Keep your distance and let them know you’re in charge, or else your subordinates will run roughshod all over you. I got that exact same advice once, just before I accepted my first gig as a sales manager. (Come to think of it, the person who gave me that advice had followed it to a T — unfortunately.)
Well…that advice may be true in some workplaces, but my experience just doesn’t bear this out. I feel people will work much more willingly and enthusiastically for a boss who likes and trust them — and who they like and trust — than for a boss who rules by fear, or intimidation, or a critical spirit. This is something many of us who have been in management and leadership learn over time, often the hard way. Yes, if you get too close you might get burned from time to time, but the payoff in higher productivity and improved morale is well worth it, I’m convinced. (This is probably a debate for another time.)
So what should my friend with the younger, critical boss do? One possibility is that the younger boss is behaving critically because she is trying to establish her managerial credibility. This may be her first leadership position. Could it be that her critical spirit masks some significant professional insecurity — an insecurity compounded by my friend’s seniority in age and experience? I might suggest that the best course of action could be to get together with the boss one-on-one and let her know you’re rooting for her and that you are committed to her success. Compliment her on things she does well. Ask her advice. I’m not suggesting you behave dishonestly or that you become a subordinate schmoozer — but building up your boss has to be a better strategy than letting the frustration build to the breaking point.
If the boss is truly unreasonable or mean-spirited, that may be different. But by always responding with criticism, a boss could simply be showing his or her need to be right. The more the boss trusts the employee, the less that critical spirit will prevail — hopefully. I’ll ask my friend next week how “Operation Build Up the Boss” is working out.