‘I hate my manager’: Typical office story, atypical conclusion

Ancient head of Medusa.
Ancient head of Medusa. Remind you of your boss? (Via Flickr, Creative Commons share and share alike license)

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2014 — A friend recently told me an intriguing but all-too-typical story about her office. The office is small with fewer than ten people in it, and it is populated by a variety of unique individual personalities. But all of them are more or less united by one simple problem: Everyone dislikes the office manager.

This particular manager was described as very aggressive and overly critical of every individual on her staff. For the past five years, everyone in the office has been ardently hoping−in vain−that she will retire.

Consistent with the typical pattern, the one male employee in this office dislikes the manager. His personal solution is to ignore her and try to complete his daily tasks without interacting with her. He does everything possible to avoid partaking in office gossip as well as getting involved in the general discontent felt by rest of his fellow employees.

Some of the women who work in this office deal with the manager in a similar manner. They also go about their day, do their work, and try to ignore conflict and gossip.

The remaining women in the office voice their discontent and dislike of their manager daily. The office manager can lose her temper and shout at anyone, but when she raises her voice to this group, they often respond emotionally with tears, anger or formal complaints of harassment.

Interestingly, the second in command in this office also happens to be a woman. She, too, is disliked by everyone in the office, but the women in the office who frequently voice their displeasure do so to her. The employees claim to dislike the second in command because “she does not stand up and defend her employees to the office manager.”

This story takes on many forms, but the basic dysfunction described in this case can be found in offices across the country. The surprising thing is that the women in this particular office feel that all the women managers should be removed and men should replace them.

But are women the cause of this office dysfunction? No. The problem goes higher up on the career ladder.

Upper management — surely aware of this chronic situation by now — has not dealt with the office manager, who has clearly proved to be ineffective. The warning signs are all there. She provides destructive feedback. She holds people to unrealistically high (unreachable) standards. She has a mean streak. She gets angry.

Upper management needs to step up to the plate in situations like this one. This manager needs extensive management and leadership training. If that does not help her or the situation, she needs to be removed from her position. But, by default, her supervisors have left her in a position of power that she routinely misuses. This is not a recipe for success.

What is perhaps most fascinating in this story, though, is the way employees discuss this situation. They talk about “the women being the problem.” And this is far from an uncommon phenomenon.

Discussions and gossip like this may be how women in business have earned a bad reputation over the years. Yet objectively speaking, it is not really women at all who are at the root of this problem and others like it. In this case, we are all discussing a bad manager who happens to be a woman.

Let’s assume this manager had been male. It is fair to assume that the same groups of subordinate employees would react similarly. The man and some of the women would try to avoid this manager and the more emotional employees would likely react emotionally.

If a man were in charge, however, employees might not conclude that the problems are due to “an office full of catty women who are emotional.” They might say instead that they have a bad manager.

Part of this issue is the manner in which some women in business emote. In an office, emotions must be controlled and stable at all times. However, when when conflict and discontent exist among women in an office environment, some of them lose that necessary emotional control.

When this happens, employees tend to become highly focused on their emotions since they are so conspicuous and unsuitable, as opposed to the relatively straightforward underlying problem – bad management.

The difference between those who react emotionally and those who do not react emotionally to the bad manager is known as “emotional maturity.”

An employee with emotional maturity possesses many strengths, including the ability to differentiate between personal and professional criticism, the ability to stay calm in stressful environments, and the ability to focus on tasks rather than emotions in the workplace.

Emotional maturity does not occur overnight. But it should be a key workplace goal for all conscientious employees. Once having achieved it, employees at all levels in an organization must practice emotional maturity daily.

This week’s prescription: The work environment presents many challenges. Those who are most emotionally mature will be able to handle such challenges professionally, and in some cases, even turn them to their own strategic advantage.

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