Thursday, July 5, 2012

How to tell what your boss really thinks of you and what your boss really thinks of the work you were hired to do...

What does your boss really think of you?

What does your boss really think about the work you do?

Here’s an easy clue to these questions. By simply adjusting the way you see how you are being motivated, you can make the answers transparent.

Just figure out the theory of motivation to which your boss subscribes. And, when you figure out his or her theory, you’ll understand what your boss really believes is the fundamental nature of the human being. And, since you are a human being, you’ll know what your boss thinks of you.

Are we basically good, basically capable, basically well-intentioned? Or, are we basically evil, slothful, bent on being and doing as little as we can? Are we basically trustworthy or are we incorrigible cheaters? Left to our own devices, will we flourish or flounder?

My guess is, if you really see what theory your boss operates under you’ll find your boss worries you’re basically an evil, slothful, untrustworthy, flounderer. You’ll have to look past the transparent gloss of the fine language of the latest management text she has read -- or her boss has foisted off on her. You’ll have to look past the sticky cotton candy verbiage the carpetbagger consultant sold your outfit. 

You’ll have to ignore the particularly tricky word “empowerment” in their lingo. If your boss declares she wants to empower you, she means, as Daniel Pink says, she has the power and she intends to ‘ladle’ a little bit of it to you – then hold you responsible for that sip of power you’ve been given.

Here’s one key place you can find the secret. Take a hard look at the evaluation form your boss uses and the rewards he or she offers. Take a look at the nature of punishment and the nature of reward. Take a look at what your boss counts toward those and what your boss doesn’t count. Heck, take a look at the very fact that your boss counts.

If what you find is a 1950s stick and carrot model of evaluation, you can bet her theory of motivation is not that you are a self-directed, creative, trustworthy person. So says Pink, in his new book “Drive” ruminating through acres of behavioral research on the nature of human motivation. If Pink is right, your boss's theory and its subsequent motivational system are better designed for 1950s manufacturing tasks and ill-suited to the need for creativity and innovation in the post-industrial era. 

Which, then, is also a clue to what your boss thinks of the work you do. If your boss subscribes to this old school theory of human nature and human motivation, she does not care if you are creative, if you innovate, if you can improvise to solve problems that stymie others. She thinks your job is closer to tightening bolts than nurturing ideas. No matter what fine verbiage she attaches to her management tools, her evaluation forms and her kudos, if she’s counting the pieces you do, you’re doing piecework.

In fact, the very fact she thinks of herself as a manager, is a clue to what’s in her boss’s heart. You manage supply chains, Pink says, not people.

Lest you think these negative images of people and their work fit only telemarketing salesmen and wait staff, these theories are quite obvious in my world, the world of higher education. Academia is more about controlling our worst impulses, keeping us in line and churning out credit hours than you might imagine. Don’t get me wrong; that old ivory tower is a fine place to work but sometimes the pomp and circumstance hide the underlying ways it is just as pridefully old school as other 1950s professions.

Here are some clues Pink and I offer:

Language – In addition to the words management and empowerment, look out for the phrase “bottom up decision making” or “we’re moving decision making down.”  Carefully examine the meaning of a “collaborative process.” If that process begins with your input -- another word freighted with meaning -- but doesn’t end with your decision, the meaning of “collaborative” does not trend in your favor. 

Counting – As I said before, the very fact that your boss counts is a strong clue to what he or she thinks of you and the work you do. Most academics operate under the weight of the holy Trinity – teaching, scholarship, service. The calculus your outfit uses to evaluate you is a precise measure of what it values. A recent long-winded discussion among the newspaper division members of Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) devolved, as usual, into an acrimonious argument over this precise calculus. Amen.

Counting, part two – What sort of work do you do? Chances are you consider your best work to be innovative, to be the creation of something, to be your ability to solve a problem or help someone else solve a problem. Does your boss count these things? If not, your boss doesn’t consider them to be the work you were hired to do.

Guess what; even in education this is true. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evaluation form that asked if the teacher was good at helping students sort out their lives. I doubt anyone who signs evaluation forms actually reads many of the articles fellow academics submit to journals, unless they happen to share the same expertise. I can’t recall anyone in authority saying a syllabus looked interesting … or a syllabus was flawed. The only word I’ve ever heard from authority about a syllabus was when it was late being posted. 

Bottomline, if your boss counts what you do, as in credit hours accomplished or articles published or how promptly the syllabus was distributed, that’s what matters to them and that’s the sort of work they hired you to do. They did not hire you for your creativity, ability to solve problems in new ways, or whether you care about the people you serve. No matter what else they say.

Who does the counting – Here’s an important test to understand what your boss actually thinks of you. Would you be considered terribly naïve if you suggested that you – the worker – ought to have the final word on how you’ve done? Would such a suggestion cause ripples of laughter around the board room where the council of presidents, vice presidents and assistant vice presidents sit? Would you be laughed out of the room if you suggested employees could be trusted to evaluate themselves? It is, after all, their careers. They are, after all, the ones who do the work. But if the idea that you might determine if you’ve succeeded or failed or hit the dreaded “meets expectations” on the nose, it that idea is considered naïve, you know a lot about what they really think of you.

For most people, the facts are obvious. Your boss doesn’t trust that the work you were hired to do will interest you enough intrinsically for you to be left alone to do it. Your boss became a boss, you might guess, because the work wasn’t intrinsically interesting to him or her. If the work itself didn’t interest your boss deep down, why should it interest you?

Next: Autonomy and mastery -- Values your boss probably doesn’t understand...and fears.


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