Articles > Role call: It's tougher to be a manager now

Role call: It's tougher to be a manager now
Globe & Mail, March 17, 2010

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A human-resources consultant friend recently received a highly unusual request: The chief executive officer of a technology-services firm asked him to design a program that would help his employees - about 110 mostly young programmers -"grow up and become adults."

This complaint - that employees act like children - is one I've heard expressed frequently by senior managers in recent years. And it's not just younger employees they are talking about.

How tough is it to be a manager today? I recently posed that question in an online survey, receiving detailed answers from about 30 middle and senior managers.

The answer: It's really, really tough.

Managers' complaints go well beyond having to be a kindergarten teacher. They also beefed about the numerous demands placed on contemporary management, including litigious and highly regulated work environments.

In addition, new challenges have arisen as a result of the recession: hyper-lean staffing, demoralized and anxious employees, insufficient budgets, never-ending demands, unrealistic expectations, and staffers thinking managers are the bad guys - that they choose to be mean and overload workers.

Adding to the pressure, managers now increasingly have to wear two hats - one as a manager and the other, thanks to a lack of bodies, as an individual contributor, to deliver the work that staff once would have carried out. Juggling both roles, as one manager said, is "an almost impossible balancing act."

So how does this all play out? Aggravated managers had choice words for employees, top brass, bureaucracy and the general tenor of their organizations' culture.

Employees, if you are aiming for the management ranks, you may want to think twice. You should also understand what's in the hearts and minds of your bosses: You may unwittingly be driving them nuts, and killing your career prospects.

And leaders, take note if you want your managers to perform effectively and continue their careers inside your organization.

Here is a snapshot of managers' major beefs:

Needy employees

Managers have always complained about the occasional difficult, demanding or unreasonable staffer, but what was once the exception is now increasingly the rule.

As one manager said: "It's like I spend most of my time being mommy - wiping noses, kissing boo-boos and getting everyone to play nice."

Needing to act as a referee to resolve silly or unnecessary conflicts between staffers or intervene on slights, such as not being invited to a meeting, was a major complaint.

Managers also grumbled about workers constantly seeking approval for completing the lowest of tasks. Managers want to celebrate major accomplishments, but they don't want to have to hand out constant gold stars to employees. As one said: "This is what they are paid for."

Why so much neediness? Why are workers so quick to go to their managers with, as one put it, "so many emotional issues," personal and work-related?

There are many reasons. To begin, people do have more stressors in their lives on both the work and home fronts. When they're tired and under stress, their boundaries are eroded and they are more likely to act out or look for reassurance.

Diverse cultures, personalities and generations all working together can also result in personality clashes, especially when fuelled by intense productivity heat. People often are, or feel, misunderstood.

There has also been a psychological shift in organizations. Just as teachers are now often viewed more as friends than slightly intimidating authority figures, managers are experiencing the same softening of boundaries. It's not just younger workers; it hits all ages.

"I had a 50-year-old man in my office the other day who broke down crying about a senior manager who was mean to him. He was the second in the same week to do this," one manager recounted.

Also part of the shift: Today, everyone wants to be authentic. Translation: Don't repress anything.

But it's not just neediness. Staffers also assume managers should be at their constant beck and call to resolve all difficulties. They developed this assumption at a time when managers were not dealing with a multitude of competing priorities and a recession.

Sense of entitlement

Almost everyone complained about staffers' unreasonable expectations. "I have three employees who are now lobbying for a promotion or exceptional performance rating," one manager said.

Their basis: "One made a retirement party, another stayed an extra hour late, the third helped someone with their technology problems."

Lack of boundaries

A number of managers commented on employees overstepping appropriate worker-boss talk. At a regular weekly meeting, one manager asked how a mid-level professional employee was as a conversation opener. The employee's response was an hour-long monologue about a neighbourhood dog's incessant barking and a mail carrier's sloppiness, "which blew the entire meeting," the manager said, adding it happens frequently with many of her staff.

A big turnoff: Several commented on employees, as one manager put it, "who feel a need to tell me all about their sex life."

Need for direction

Many managers said they are tired of the unremitting hand-holding, constantly telling employees what to do and how. Offering general direction was fine, they said, but having to coach workers through the simplest requests was making them "nuts," as one added.

Examples: One manager was consulted on what colour the icing should be on a birthday cake for a team member. Another was asked by a senior professional, for the third time, to review a 20-page proposal. The changes: a few minor grammatical revisions.


Virtually everyone complained about the red tape, several saying they believed policies were in place just to cover the butts of top brass.

It seems like there are forms to fill out for everything - and required expertise to go along. "So, in addition to being a subject matter expert," one said, "I need to be an expert on legislation and every conceivable potential human rights violation: health and safety, privacy, discrimination, harassment, employment standards, toxic work environments, you name it."

Filling out all the forms to get anything done was a major stressor and time-waster, they complained. One middle manager said she spent a whole day trying to determine which form to fill out to request an ergonomic chair for an employee; the next day, she ate up four hours completing forms for someone going on maternity leave.

The worst headache for several was "dealing with HR," who a few likened to the in-house police.

Leaders don't walk the talk

While most managers said they felt that their organizations' values are strongly articulated and clear, many did not believe top brass were living up to them.

Among the values violations, some cited executives who proclaimed to care about work/life balance - and then scheduled meetings at, say, 6 p.m., with full knowledge of staffers' child-care responsibilities.

Particularly disturbing to many was the attitude toward staff development. Executives talk about its importance, and then cut all training, or don't give people time to attend. Most dispiriting: If managers themselves attend leadership-development programs, they feel they have nobody to emulate, as their leaders don't demonstrate desired behaviours or espoused values.

As one manager put it: "Executives talk about how people are our most important resource and all that other blah, blah, blah, then beat us up for everything, nickel and dime us, and basically treat everyone like crap."

Acting before thinking

Many managers rued being expected to provide hair-trigger responses to complicated problems. "Produce, produce, produce. This is not a fast-food restaurant," one said. Added another: "People, mostly leaders, jump to conclusions, wanting everything digested in a sentence."

The result is compromised work. "Complex problems need more than a one-second magic-bullet solution," one manager said.

Time and resources squeeze

Quite simply, managers are maxed out. Many feel they have neither the time nor the resources to feel they have successfully accomplished even one small thing.

What do they need? More realistic expectations, a few shekels to get the job done, and sufficient people to do the job.

It's not all headaches and frustrations. Among the joys of being a manager, they cited staff and leaders now or in past jobs whom they really respected; developing employees; mentoring talented people; and having some influence.

If only they had a minute to accomplish all this.


Get a grip on your emotions

Tired from overwork? Anxious about your job? These are not get-out-of-jail-free cards for losing your temper or being rude to people you work with and for.

Grow up

Your boss is not your mother nor your referee. And work isn't a playground. Don't run to your boss because so-and-so gave you a funny look in the hall or cut you off in a meeting. On a significant issue, your boss is in your corner.

Take initiative

Stop waiting for your boss to tell you what to do. Pitch in when everyone is under the gun, even if you haven't been asked.

Find other friends

Your boss doesn't have a huge interest in your daily travails outside the office. Know when it's appropriate to share personal details. If something seriously wrong in your personal life affects your work, tell your boss.

For therapy, go to a pro

Your boss is not trained to counsel you. Managers don't want to hear the substance of your marital difficulties or fertility challenges. Many are also uncomfortable when you cry in their office. If your boss is your mentor and you have a special relationship, these may be fair grounds.

Stop being so needy

Your boss doesn't have time to give you feedback on everything you do that's part of your job description. Assume that if you screw something up, you will hear about it. However, if you have had a major career accomplishment or discovered new abilities, tell your boss. Seeing you shine and supporting your development is a major sources of satisfaction for bosses.

Kill the entitlement

You don't get a superior performance rating or a promotion for completing every job-related task that's part of your job description. If you want to get ahead, do something exceptional.

Not always the bad guy

Your boss doesn't necessarily control the budget, get pleasure from squeezing every last ounce of blood out of you, is not responsible for all the cuts, and may not have much more control than you do.

Show appreciation

You boss is not made of stone. If you think he or she has helped you develop, let him or her know. It will make the boss's day.


Managers, you may not have discretionary control over the mix of responsibilities nor legislative requirements. But you can flex your muscles when it comes to dealing with needy staffers.

Don't reinforce it

Many managers unwittingly contribute to staffers' dependence. They allow themselves to be drawn into conversations that violate workplace boundaries, for instance, by offering advice on personal issues. Or they may show their own neediness, for example, by asking for praise on their management style. Some managers may actually like being needed, so they encourage dependence.

Set boundaries

Decide what you feel is acceptable conversation and how much hand-holding is appropriate for a given task. Follow through. You aren't being mean if you aren't always available or you don't want to be your staffer's best friend or therapist.

Clarify your expectations

At a meeting, let employees know when you expect them to take initiative, and when to come to you for help. Give examples. Ensure they understand what you are saying. And walk the talk. Don't tell employees to take initiative and then micromanage or slap their hand because something wasn't done perfectly, from your point of view.

Praise when worthy

Sometimes staffers seek constant approval because they never get feedback or praise. Ensure you comment favourably on important contributions