Office Diaries

An insider's guide to success in the workplace

Is Managing People a Popularity Contest?

To care or not to care what your employees think about you?

When I first began my career, and I mean like within the first few days, someone directly under me, but who was responsible for managing people, said, "Look, I'm not here to win a popularity contest. I'm here to do my job." She was describing her management style and I was too new to fully grasp what she was saying. It sounded good. No BS. No emotion. No getting bogged down in trying to be "Mr(s). Nice Guy." It seemed to be working for her. She'd been with the company for years. Then, not long after that someone else, this time a person to whom I reported, said exactly the same thing. I remember thinking, "Okay, cool. This is a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of crowd." I pictured a ruthless executive like Peter Parker's boss, JJ Jameson at the Daily Bugle in the Spiderman movies.

Let's just say that it didn't last long. I was 25 years old and had a staff of 20 - 30 people at any given time, people with a lot of experience, way more than I had, which as we've already established was none. It didn't matter that I was their boss. I needed them to care about what I needed, which was what my boss needed, and her boss, and so on. I saw, almost immediately, that not caring about what they thought of me was nothing more than a great way to come across as a bitch. Plus, they were a really interesting group of people and I did like them. So why, I had to ask myself, shouldn't I care that they like me back?

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If they didn't, what was going to make them want to work for me? And I don't mean showing up every day and going through the motions, which is what I saw them do when it came to working for the women, one step below and one step above me. I mean showing up and being motivated to work their tails off, driven to create the kind of success that inspires high-fives all around.

As I continued to grow in my career, I never forgot that experience and those words, "I'm not here to win a popularity contest." What's more, I've heard it many times since and wondered, "What motivates that kind of defense?" What's so terrible about being popular? About endearing yourself to people, or connecting with them? About forming a relationship that motivates people to want to work hard and perform at their best? Nothing. But still, there are managers who think people will do what they want them to do because they have to, because an organizational chart says it's so. Perhaps. But I'll tell you this; you can't compare the results between work that people want to do versus when they feel as though they have to do it. Whether bosses want to admit it or not, people affect people for better and worse. And at the end of the day, caring begets caring. So if you want your staff to be engaged, interested and motivated to outperform themselves and even surprise you, act as though you are there to win a popularity contest.

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Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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