Amanda

An arm from behind him reached across his shoulder and placed a steaming cup of dark liquid on the table. He looked up to see a petite brunette in a navy suit step swiftly around the table, pull out the chair opposite his own, and sit. She smiled.

“Thank you,” he said. “Is this for me?”

“You wanted latte, right?”

“I did. And I am guessing you have something you want to talk about.”

“Yes,” she said. “Do we introduce ourselves?”

“If you want,” he said. “I’m Ned. I work here.”

“Amanda. Nice to meet you.”

He sipped from the cup. “Thanks for the drink. What’s on your mind?”

“Work issues mostly,” she said. “I’m encountering some obstacles and I thought it would help to talk them through with somebody.”

“I’m honored,” he said. “But why not someone at work?”

“See, that’s the problem. I’m in a delicate position at the moment. There’s no one I can trust to give me objective advice, because whatever I do affects their careers, so they can hardly be objective.”

“I see. Well, I suppose I can bring the objectivity of one who knows absolutely nothing about you or your workplace. So what is this delicate position you’re in?”

“It’s called management.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it.”

“I’m a section leader, with five reports. I report to the vice president.”

“You’ve come far quite fast, I would guess.”

“Thank you. It’s a lot of responsibility considering I’m only 31.”

“Good for you.”

She smiled. He waited. He had found that silence could be productive; most people found silence uncomfortable and would eventually speak just to fill the void.

“I think the problem is this,” she said at last. “People respect me, but I don’t know that anyone likes me.”

“Do you want to be respected?”

“Absolutely.”

“But you also want to be liked?”

“Well, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”

“I wasn’t asking about everyone. I was asking about Amanda.”

“Yes, I do want people to like me. “

“Do you think the people who report to you can be your friends?”

“That’s a tough one. Maybe not. Maybe it’s more important that they respect me.”

“And how about the vice president you report to?”

“I definitely want him to like me. But I need him to respect me too.”

“Is he a friend?”

“Sure, we’re friends. Work friends, I guess.”

“And the people who report to you – are they work friends?”

“Yes, I guess that’s right.”

“But work friends aren’t real friends?”

“Not really.”

“So what’s a real friend?”

“Somebody you can tell your secrets to and not worry they’ll go blab them to the world. Someone who you can go shopping with for a day. That sort of thing.”

“Do you have any friends like that?”

“Right now? I guess not.”

“Does that matter to you?”

“Not really. I mean, I have so many good things in my life right now. It’s not like I need a best friend. But it would be nice to have someone like that.”

“Have you tried converting work friends into real friends?”

“That’s where I have a problem. Because what if I get very close to someone, and then I have to fire them? Besides the awkwardness of that, it’s unprofessional.”

“Unprofessional!”

“Yeah.”

“Do you have to fire a lot of people?”

“Unfortunately, I have. I’m a great team leader – that comes through in all my evaluations – but you have to have the right people on the team to meet your goals. It’s hard to find people who work well as a team, which is why I’ve had to replace a few people. Well, a lot of people actually. It seems like all I do lately is interview people for positions.”

“Let me ask this: how do you see yourself as a manager?”

“Demanding but fair.”

“Demanding?”

“I have to be demanding, because my vice president expects me to meet certain goals. I depend on my team to meet our goals, and when one of them lets us down, we need to fix that problem.”

“By firing him?”

“Sometimes. Not the first time, but if it happens repeatedly, then yeah. It’s for the good of the team.”

“Well, Amanda, you strike me as the kind of manager that would be an executive’s fondest dream.”

“Thank you.”

“And an employee’s worst nightmare.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I worked for you, I’d be scared to death that you would fire me if I made a mistake.”

“That’s not true!”

“Perhaps not, but that’s what I hear in what you’re telling me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you care quite a lot about making your goals, and not so much about the people you need to accomplish them.”

“Bullshit. I care about them a lot. I need them to work hard so we can make our goals.”

“Our goals?”

“The goals I’ve been given by the vice president.”

“Your goals, In other words.”

“Yes, my goals, but they’re our goals too. We achieve them as a team.”

“The team being…?”

“Me and my reports.”

“See, I think that may be a problem.”

“What?”

“That you see the members of your team as ‘reports.’ Not people.”

“Of course they’re people.”

“People first? Or reports first?”

“It’s not one or the other. They’re both. What are you saying?”

“I’m just saying, if I were a member of your team, I would hate to think that you saw me merely as ‘a report.’ It wouldn’t motivate me to do my best for you.”

“Why not?”

“Because it doesn’t suggest that you think very much of me.”

“I don’t get it. That’s what everyone’s called. I’m one of my vice president’s reports. My team are my reports. What’s the big deal?”

“It’s the language of hierarchy. It says to me that you see yourself as superior and me as inferior.”

“That’s not true! I mean, it is true that there’s a hierarchy in the business of who reports to whom, but not in a human sense.”

“No? “

“I care about people. I’m a people person.”

“I’m sure you are, Amanda. Let me ask this: has anyone who reports to you ever been promoted?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything. I’ve only been in the position a little over a year.”

“How many are on your team?”

“Right now, four. We have one opening.”

“How many people have been dismissed from your team in the time you’ve led it?”

“Let’s see…three. No, four.”

“So it sounds like you’ve had 80 percent turnover in a year.”

“I guess that’s so if you put it that way.”

“And if I were a member of your team, that would have me wondering, ‘Am I next?’”

“You might be, if you don’t do your job well.”

“But I might be, even if I do perform well. The odds are four-to-one that you’ll fire me eventually.”

Amanda pondered that for a moment.

“So let me just reflect back to you the picture you’ve painted: you’re the boss of five people. They have to work hard and well for you to succeed. If they are not helping you meet your goals, they will be replaced. You get rewarded if you meet your goals. I suspect your ‘reports’ get little or no reward for helping you meet your goals.”

“They get raises.”

“Do they get credit for what you – they – have accomplished? Or does the credit fall on you?”

“Let me think about that.”

“I think you know the answer. So again, just based on the picture you’ve painted, I suspect the people on your team don’t feel very valued. I would guess they feel afraid of you, afraid that any mistake could mean the end of their job. In which case, they are more likely to play it safe than to take risks. They certainly won’t leap to take risks so that you reap the glory. They may feel that you don’t really value them except as instruments that you play to sound good to your own boss.”

Ned paused and sipped his latte. After a brief pause, he asked, “Does any of this sound possible?”

“Unfortunately, yes. But I’m not sure I can do anything about it.”

“You definitely can’t if you don’t want to.”

“Even if I do want to. The business is hierarchical. Everyone has to play by the same rules.”

“Pardon me. I don’t know for sure, since I don’t know your company, but I would venture to guess that that’s not true.”

“What’s not?” “That everyone has to play by the same rules. I think you’ll find that managers have different styles. Some do it the way you do, and others may get the results they want using another method. Are you into sports?”

“I follow college basketball pretty closely.”

“Perfect. Then you understand this principle. You know there’s not one way to coach a basketball team and get great results. There are as many ways as there are coaches, and players.”

“But we’re talking business, not basketball.”

“We’re talking about team-building. You’re smart, you’re capable, you have leadership abilities, but you haven’t yet figured out team-building, or you wouldn’t have 80 percent turnover. Changing players is not going to create a winning team for you if you don’t understand how to motivate those players and make it in their interest to help you. That’s all I’m saying. And I hope you find it worth a cup of latte.”

“Well, at least you’ve given me something to think about,” said Amanda. “Thanks for your time.”

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