Attention all staff: I am the boss so you must like me

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National on 24th May 2010. There is a paradox at the heart of modern management: managers state that employees are their most important asset but employees don’t feel that way.

That’s a view confirmed by the London School of Economics professor Richard Layard, the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Society. His research indicates that most people are least happy when interacting with their boss. They would rather spend time with friends, family, even be alone – anyone but the boss.

This makes for pretty bleak news for all those, such as myself, who like to think of ourselves as progressive, likeable managers when in fact we might be ogres who make our teams cringe every time they see us.

During the industrial revolution management was about squeezing every last kilojoule of energy from the worker before he or she dropped.

The boss was breathing down their necks. There were of course some exceptions. Companies run by Quakers or philanthropic owners followed a different model.

However, by the start of the 21st century we were studying concepts such as emotional intelligence and neuro-linguistic programming in an attempt to soften management. Everything became touchy-feely, with casual clothing and pastel colours to create moods and values within the corporate walls.

So where did it go so wrong for this generation of managers to be so disliked? After all, these psychology-centred techniques had equipped us with the finer arts of management.

In typical management speak my “gut reaction” is to “break through the clutter” by “creating a sea change” as I try to “think outside the box” so that I can deliver a “high-impact solution”. And if you understood that, then you’re definitely one of the management, as opposed to one of the suffering employees.

In a nutshell, we managers need to find someone to blame other than ourselves for making our staff feel so miserable. It can’t be our fault.

So first on the list of possible culprits are the business schools who’ve been mass producing MBA students and sending them out into the world of work.

That’s certainly the opinion of the actor Michael Douglas, who was recently speaking at the Cannes Film Festival. He reprises his role as the ruthless, money-obsessed Gordon Gekko in the Hollywood film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the follow-up to Wall Street.

Douglas said: “I was pretty stunned after the first Wall Street by how people perceived Gordon Gekko. He was an insider trader who destroyed companies and people … We never foresaw that all those MBA students would be raving about this man and saying ‘That’s what I want to be.’”

Another possible villain can be the company we work for. As we spend most of our lives working within them, so they have made us who we are.

I saw a good example of this a few months ago when I strolled into an abandoned office on a prime location along the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai.

The company that had been there, but which had folded, had left all of its furniture, paperwork and other office paraphernalia behind.

It felt eerie as I walked along deserted corridors and empty workstations; it looked as though a killer virus had swept through striking everyone down. I was half expecting a zombified chief executive to jump out at me from behind the photocopier.

The real chief executive had left his mark. Reading the company notice board, I saw that the first thing he had done when the financial crisis hit was to put up an internal notice to staff declaring “the company” had decided to cancel all annual leave.

A month later the next notice announced that “the company” would give written warnings to staff who turned up five minutes or more late to the office in the mornings. It also said staff would now need to declare the time they were spending away from their desks for toilet and smoke breaks.

In month three there was a solitary notice which said that “the company” was closing with immediate effect and any staff who hadn’t received their pay to date should seek the assistance of a legal representative to recover any amounts due to them.

The chief executive had already left town, probably with the blessing of “the company”.

It’s a shocking story but one that has repeated itself in many places. Managers blame the company, as though it were some separate consciousness that had been telepathically directing their behaviour.

How easy it is to hide management incompetence behind the teachings of a business school or the corporate veil of process and bureaucracy that pervades many organisations.

Yet in those companies where employees have a genuine say or some form of ownership, such as an employee-owned business, then we rarely see the mental and psychological disconnect between the manager and the managed. How can there be when every employee is also an owner in the business?

Management in that situation becomes about degrees of responsibility. Employees who are owners will naturally gravitate to helping one another achieve goals together that they cannot achieve individually.

The answer to the paradox at the heart of management therefore lies not merely in management techniques, but in company ownership structures.

Unfortunately, you won’t find this on the agenda of any management meetings.