The employee-manager relationship is inherently doomed

Employee Manager Relationship

If you stopped and thought about the general (because every situation is unique) relationship between employees and their managers, you might honestly think each side was speaking a different language: maybe the employee is coming to work and doing their day-to-day tasks in English, but the manager is speaking French. Of course that’s not the actual reality, but if often feels that way. But why?

First, consider a few examples:

These are just a handful of examples; other people could find more.

Here’s where it can get confusing: at some point, almost all managers were rank-and-file employees. Very few people begin their career as a manager. It can happen if your dad ran a business or something, but it’s rare.

So … what happens to a person between “employee” and “manager” that makes them unable to relate back to where they were?

I’d auger there are a couple of issues at play here:

  • More Responsibility: As you move up a chain to a manager role, you inherently have more to do. Deliverables become more important, whereas relating back down the chain becomes less so.
  • Importance Shifts: Managers tend to be a little closer to how and when/why a company makes money. When you’re at that level, you think about that more. As a rank-and-file, you don’t as much.
  • Invisible Barriers: Often in organizations, managers have more meetings with each othermore on that here —  so that it almost creates a clique of managers vs. employees.
  • Vocabulary Changes: Rank-and-files don’t talk about “margins,” for example (not often). Managers do. Over time, a shift in your work vocabulary can create distance from another group.
  • Shit Runs Downhill: In the process of trying to get promoted, a manager dealt with a lot of bullshit. Now, as a manager, they push some of that back down the chain. Everyone’s always done that, right?

Again, there are tons more reasons — and the above isn’t even necessarily scientific. Some of it can be summed up here (via Don Draper) and here (via the humblebrag).

I’ve worked with a handful of people who have, while I’ve worked with them, become managers. I’d say the change isn’t even gradual — within 3 to 6 months, they can seemingly be speaking an entirely different language and running around like a chicken with their head cut off from meeting to meeting to call to call. (Meetings and calls, oh my!) They also tend to couch real issues — if you go to them and don’t feel 100 percent engaged, they’ll say shit like, “Well, the company believes that…”

It can be a pretty drastic shift. I think it’s one of the funniest things in your work life — how fast that can happen.

I guess it’s almost akin to “growing up” in a work sense. When you “grow up” in a personal sense along different areas of your life, you move some friends to acquaintances and vice versa. Dynamics shift. You can surround yourself with different people, etc. It’s probably the same here.

We all know workplace communication is far from ideal, and we all know that most managers aren’t really that effective — but if you stop and think about it, how could communication or managers be effective? On every major topic, it seems like rank-and-file employees and the managers they report to are perceiving the same set of information totally differently. They’re speaking a different language.

Do you think employees and managers CAN relate? If so, how?

Ted Bauer


  1. The surveys that supposedly ‘prove’ salary isn’t an important motivator are not scientific and usually belied by other, actual evidence. Such as… Almost everyone who leaves a job gets more money. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that wasn’t their motivation, but it almost almost seems to be a part of the package, strangely enough. Also, when people are hired for a job, say Job A, people hired externally are almost always hired at a higher rate than those who are hired internally. When people take surveys about what motivates them, they give the answers they think they’re supposed to give. What’s more, they rate all options on an all else equal basis. So, if you ask them to choose between salary and a good manager, they will choose the latter, but that’s assuming salary is adequate to begin with. To get slightly more realistic results you would have to ask them to choose one or the other to see which they are willing to sacrifice, and even then, they will give the answer they think they’re supposed to give.

    All practical experience says money is the main motivator. If you want to look at it through some framework, Maslow’s is as good as any, and money is a maintenance function. More money will not solve problems, however if it’s not there it will cause problems. And more importantly, it’s possible for one thing to motivate and another demotivate someone at the same time. However, when those ‘studies’ are cited supposedly ‘proving’ money isn’t a motivator, managers don’t hear, “So long as people are paid commensurate with their output, other factors play a bigger role in their motivation.” No, they hear, “Bagels on Friday will allow you to not pay people a market wage.” Or, they hear, “So long as you tell your employees their work is ‘meaningful’ or ‘impactful,’ you don’t have to pay a market wage.”

    The reason people fuss over price so much, and the reason recruiters and HR ‘thought leaders’ are always publishing articles claiming salary doesn’t really matter, is because the Almighty Clients they serve don’t want to hear the plain truth, “You get what you pay for.” Which is true in all industries, labor included. You can’t pay your bills with ‘impactful’ work, or bagels on Friday. You need money. And one of the best things anyone can do to facilitate communication between employers and employees is to drop the screen of bullshit and state the plain truth.

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