Cog or team member?

The story in this post has few details. It’s partly because I don’t believe it’s wise to slag a former employer explicitly. It’s mostly because I do not remember the details!

I was given a task by a former boss. It was straightforward but I didn’t do it because I thought it was a mistake. A doorway connected the room in which I worked to an adjacent room. Not a door, but an arched doorway. The instructions directed me to create a permanent distraction for myself. It involved setting something up in the adjacent room that would draw other employees throughout the day. They’d talk amongst themselves while they were there and distract me from my own work.

Normally, I’m careful about changing the rules. I check in advance to make sure. In this case however, the idea was fundamentally flawed. It was so flawed, that I didn’t check in advance before I started work on something else that would achieve the same result without sabotaging my own work.

Sabotage is a good word to bring up, because it reminds me that there are two types of bosses. One tells you what to do and expects you to do it. Period. The other type of boss tells you what he wants achieved, and lets you figure out how to do it, providing the resources you need.

The first type of boss sees you as an appliance. You’re a mere cog in the machine. Questions other than those required to follow the directions will annoy this boss. “I don’t pay you to think!” is something this boss might say. Ultimately, if your task has flawed instructions, you’re doomed. If you follow the directions faithfully, you’re going to get yelled at because you should have realized the directions were flawed. If you realize the directions are flawed and find another way to the same end, you’re going to get yelled at if the result isn’t perfect, because you didn’t follow the directions. If your attempt improve on the directions fails utterly, you’re really going to get an ear-full.

The second type of boss sees you as part of a team. This boss is more likely to facilitate than issue orders. Being part of a team means that you can contribute ideas and use your experience and specialized knowledge. Further, everyone else on the team does the same thing, creating a pool of expertise and experience that a single person isn’t likely to have.

I was going to say that most bosses in the real world are a fusion with varying proportions of each type. In thinking about it though, my experience is that most bosses tend strongly toward one type or the other, with few in the middle.

The boss in my story had no interest in telling me the ‘why.’ As a result, I thought my solution was better, but even after I explained my reasoning, he said, “When I tell you to do something, I want you to do what I told you to do.” I still don’t know if my understanding of the goal was correct, but I do know his directions would have negatively affected my work.

Maybe it boils down to how willing a boss is to trust employees. A micro-manager doesn’t want your ideas. If they ask you how you’re going to do something, it’s because they don’t trust you to do it without knowing your plan first. A team leader knows that trusting for his people means fewer conceptual and planning errors and often results in better ways of doing things because of a larger pool of talent and ideas to draw upon. Trust does involve risk, but it opens the door to new opportunities and lots of learning. I’d rather be trusted to use my abilities to solve problems than to blindly follow directions.

Do you want to be part of a team, or an assembly line robot? The latter is safer, but the former is more rewarding.

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