At one of my last full-time jobs, I was under a specific boss that kind of overall ran “content.” It seemed a logical place for me, generally-speaking, although within about two weeks of working at this place, I already knew the job role was a farce, which is sadly all too true at companies.
One of the ways I knew it? I was the “digital content” person. But see, this lady — my boss — had a magazine/editorial content team as well for an in-house magazine. That was her bread and butter. She came from that world and “got” it. Most of her digital experience was online shopping, which is a much different ballgame than online editorial.
To make matters worse, there was a team in Seattle that controlled how the website looked and felt, and they operated according to different metrics, incentives, and road maps than we did. So even getting a color/font change could legit take 12–15 months.
My boss’ boss could have intervened and gotten timetables moved up, but again, not her incentive structure to do so.
This job became miserable fairly quickly, and I ultimately got fired from it. Probably all for the best. Hard at the moment, but it’s worked out.
So in addition to the misery about trying to be productive, here was Tier II: every week, there was an “all-hands meeting” for my team, which was mostly the generic “Everyone list out their to-do list” meeting we all dread. I sat in those. And then, a few days later, the editorial/magazine team had their meeting. I was outside my boss’ office for those ones, and man, it got depressing. Those meetings were fun and raucous and loud and everyone was joking and laughing and merry and then, the next Monday, I trudged into my stoic, “no one wants to be here” meeting, and I lived for cycle for weeks and weeks, months and months, until I got laid off.
I was probably 32–35 in that job. I got fired a week after I turned 35. Now, you can easily argue I could have done more, been more proactive, etc. You would not be wrong. I own my flaws entirely. I phoned it in at this job for large chunks of time, in part because of the above and in part because of my own issues in other walks of life. But is this type of exclusionary management the way that people should be spending their early 30s career-wise? I wouldn’t think so.
Human beings are social animals
I think we all know this, but we need connection and community. Probably about 15 months after I got booted from that job, I subsequently got divorced. That’s a lot of shit to happen in 15 months, generally speaking — plus when you get divorced, shit was broken for a long time, so it was a rough year and a half in there. One of the ways you even come out of it all is by trying to find community. It matters.
The problem is with work, it’s not set up this way. Let me give you another example of a contract I’m on now. They hold little mini-trade shows around North America, probably 8–12/year. I’m on a retainer with ’em and do work daily, so it’s not some also-ran deal. I’m theoretically part of the team, just not a full-time employee. I’ve been to maybe 1–2 of these conferences, although admittedly one was local to me. Every time I ask about going to more, it’s radio silence.
Exclusion, not inclusion.
Now look, I get it. It costs money to fly someone to an event, hotels cost money, if they go to a bar and get a hamburger and 2 beers, that costs money and they might ask for a reimbursement. I get all of it. Businesses are very cost-averse. It makes total sense.
But there needs to be a balance between “what humans want and need from a job” — which is a sense of being included, feeling part of a team, feeling psychologically safe — and “these are decisions we are making solely from a cost or wallet standpoint.”
The absentee manager issue
This is somewhat all similar to the “absentee manager issue,” which is the silent killer of companies.
You probably inherently understand what an “absentee manager” is, but it’s basically a person who probably never wanted direct reports — they just wanted the higher salary, and the direct reports are a total fucking nuisance. So they completely avoid you until there’s an issue they need to “deal” with, and then they get on your ass about it in a very harsh way.
The paradox of the absentee manager is this: if you’ve ignored me for three months and now you care because something I did made you look bad up your chain, well, why do I even care anymore? You barely know me. You’re just reprimanding me to cover your own ass. This is called “the low-credibility feedback problem.”
Think on it like this: a random woman comes up to you on the street and yells at you for something you just did. You instantly think she’s crazy and beyond that moment, do you really give a shit? But if your best friend comes up to you and says that, now you’re thinking on the issue a bit deeper. I’m not saying a manager needs to be your best friend. He/she should not be. But I’m saying, why would you care about someone who’s completely absent from your life except to discipline you, and who never includes you in team activities or context?
That’s absentee management. It’s directly tied to disengagement. No other way around that.
So why are managers like this?
All comes down to what you know/understand/want to work on and your incentive structure. People prioritize what they want to prioritize. We all know that. It’s just a question of how much we admit it to ourselves. Whenever you hear someone at work tell you how busy/slammed they are, well, they might be busy — but all you should hear is “I don’t want to prioritize the project you just mentioned, so I am not going to do so.”
That’s really all they’re saying.
Look at my first example. In that one, my boss’ boss could have adjusted timelines to make my job relevant (and my salary too). She never did. Couldn’t have given two shits because her boss had totally different incentives dangling down her chain. My boss could have included me in the fun meetings so I could have learned and helped out that team. Never happened either.
Look at the second example. Fly me somewhere, let’s go get some craft beers and a grilled cheese, and then work me to the bone the next day. I’ll feel good about it all because I was included. Plain and simple.
See, we talk about “inclusion” a lot in a diversity context, i.e. we need more affinity groups, we need more women, we need more African-Americans, etc. All that is true. I am not arguing against any of that. We need more diverse workplaces, both in terms of physical appearance and cognition.
But I’d argue we need something before all that — which is managers who understand how to legitimately build teams, bring people into those teams in logical ways, make them feel psychologically safe, provide them context for the work, be present in their careers and week-to-week lives, realize when they’ve failed in these endeavors, level-set and do better, etc.
For better or worse, none of us even really know why we’re physically here. What is humanity, ya know? But a lot of it seems to be rooted in groups and being included in those groups. Managers need to be better at that.