Blurry Lines, Corporate Caste Systems, and the Emotionally Detached Leader

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Blurry Lines, Corporate Caste Systems, and the Emotionally Detached Leader

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I love lines, and boxes, and points of demarcation.  Everything in its file drawer in my head.  This is mine, that is yours. Useful person, Useless person. Godlike senior executive, plebian workers to be expended at will.

Oh wait. I think that last one may be wrong. Or maybe it’s not. No. It’s gotta be wrong doesn’t it?

What I mean to say is, traditional management teaches us to not get too close to those who work for us.  I know this ’cause I was learned it in the University.  I been gived readin’ books on “how to be a great boss” that done did said it.  Some’un wrotes it.  Must be gospel.

Just because an expert said something doesn’t make it the right thing for you

Here’s the problem with lines: Different people (often “experts” in their field) draw the lines in different places. This causes me all kinds of trouble. I go through phases of voraciously reading everything I can about a topic, and often end up with very conflicting points of view on the same subject bouncing around in my  head.  I have to actually think and come up with my own conclusions.

 

Many of the places I’ve worked keep some separation between management and not-management. Often, they go so far as to draw another line between executive leadership and management. This is great for the people that draw the employee charts. It leads to nice triangley shapes.  And since I’m an “executive” I get to be the pointy part at the top.  I like pointy, it’s better than pointless.

Speaking of points, here are some of the reasons I’ve been given to avoid fraternizing with the help.

Don’t develop close relationships with people who work for you because:

  • You’ll likely end up friends with some and not others, which could be seen as unfair.
  • They might not respect you, or take you seriously.
  • Friendships are based on equality, and bosses aren’t equal. They have to do performance reviews, set salaries, give promotions.
  • They might take advantage of your kindness.
  • You might have to fire them in the future, which will be difficult if they are your friend.

Here’s the thing. Or at least a thing.  Look at that list.  What’s the driving factor between each item.  I’ll give you a hint…they all take about future possibilities. Things that might happen.

When you don’t do something because it “might happen” you are acting out of fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can be a great thing in certain situations. It keeps us safe from danger. But it also causes us to miss out on having a deeper, more meaningful existence. And more importantly, fear can cause us to draw unnecessary lines. Lines that keep people out of our lives. Lines that lead to thinking some are better than others.  Lines that effectively place a caste society right in your office.

Right now, where you work, do you really feel that your leaders sincerely care about your life?  Do you really care about people who work beneath you?  Have you ever thought about the fact that we use phrases like “Bob works under me” or “the people below me on the org chart”  are like saying we’re above them… better than, even?

And you thought we were progressing towards equality.

Here’s what I think:  I’ve chosen to treat people who report to me (directly or indirectly) as someone I care about. Yes, in the end I have to make the final decisions, and I get to bear the responsibility of failure or success, but having more on my shoulders shouldn’t have to mean I have to be some unreachable island. When I care about others I can best serve them as a leader, mentor, and even as a friend.

I get that it’s a bit ironic for me to say that, because by nature I’m about the most emotionally detached person you’ll find. Despite that I’ve found that when you see each person on your team as someone who is trying to do their best in life,  and someone who is worth getting to know, you’ll find coming to work is a much better experience. You will all be more productive and happier, which rubs off on customer interactions, which equates to more customer loyalty, which in the end means a more successful company.

So even though I’m simply not good at being a friend, and as a result I’ve failed my fair share of times, I still think my life has been better for trying to cross the line between boss and employee, and the teams I have been a part of  have been more successful for my efforts.

Have some taken advantage of me?

You betcha! But there have been many more times where someone would go the extra mile to get a job done because they knew that it mattered to me, and you do things for people you care about.

Have I held on to an employee longer than I should while trying to help them get their life together?

Check! While I’m a big believer in parting ways with an employee who can’t fit in for whatever reason as early as possible, I’m also a big believer in trying to bring out untapped potential. While I haven’t always succeeded in my efforts, I’ve had some people turn around to become top performers. I wonder what their lives would be like today had I just tossed them to the wind? Overall the benefit to myself and the companies I’ve worked for has been greater than the bit of wasted money on holding on to a few of the wrong people for too long.

Have I had to fire a friend?

I’ve had to lay off a whole team of people I cared about. It sucked. But years after we shut the division down the team arranged a get together dinner to reminisce on old times. I temporarily wrecked all their lives…and yet I was still invited. That meant a great deal to me.  I’m still proud to see all that they’ve accomplished since then.

If you are in a leadership position ask yourself:

“Do I keep an emotional distance between myself and those under my care because I am afraid of things that *might* be a problem later?”

If the answer is yes, maybe take some time to re-think what your team could be if they had a leader who they cared for as a friend. No one is saying you have to be BFFs, remember a friend is simply a “person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.”  So the question is:
Would you have a more positive workplace if there were more bonds of mutual affection?

Yes! Though it will be hard on you.  You will have to have the willpower to not be biased, to not make poor decisions because you don’t want to mess up a friendship, and to treat everyone equally.  But you rose to a leadership position because of your abilities.  I’m sure you can handle it.

And if you work for an emotionally detached leader, it might be good to put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they aren’t very good at forming attachments to people, or perhaps they may have been taught their entire career that they can’t be close to anyone who works for them. Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to come to work each day knowing you weren’t supposed be friends with the people you interact with the most? It can be really hard, so why not do what you can to help them out?  Afterall, they are also just there trying to do the best they can.

A wise mentor once told me “no one comes to work hoping to fail.”  It’s much easier to see that when you care about each other’s success. The point of all this: Even in my black and white world, I can see that some lines aren’t so great.  Sometimes we should blurry them up a bit.

Don’t let fear prevent you from getting out your eraser.


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