When Glenn Close uttered this drop-dead line in The Wife, I laughed out loud at the horrible truth. In the movie, Close was advising her husband, a famous author, not to anger a reporter. Her husband, a powerful famous man, seemed oblivious as to how his treatment of a lower-level person might be received, and then later reported upon.
Leaders often miss clues that people beneath them are unhappy. You can be ineffective or even a true jerk, and if you’re the boss, people will still be nice to you. At least to your face.
A friend of mine recently resigned from her job. Her boss was stunned; he said,
“I thought you liked it here.” He’s missed all the evidence.
My friend spent the last year hating her job. She felt continually undercut by her boss. The leadership team routinely ignored customer and employee feedback. Each day became an increasingly difficult exercise in rallying herself. She wasn’t alone, the rest of her team was experiencing similar problems.
She tried to be proactive. She outlined the issues to her boss, and provided potential solutions. She had the conversations multiple times. In short, she wasn’t a whiner. She was a good employee trying to improve things. Her boss was never openly rude or dismissive. But he never did anything either. Neither did any of the other leaders.
By the end, my friend found herself dreading Mondays. She tried playing music and meditating at lunch, just to get through the afternoon. When that didn’t work, she called a friend to vent, in some cases me.
Her situation is not unusual. She didn’t roll into work grousing and she wasn’t rude to her boss.
This is what smart people do. They don’t march in and say, “I hate my job and my disdain for you and this organization grows more each day.” Instead they try to solve the problems. When my friend turned in her resignation, her boss asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were unhappy?”
Here’s a pro tip, if you’re the boss, and good employees bring up the same problems again and again, and nothing changes, it’s pretty safe to assume, they’re unhappy. They’ll cover their disdain with a smile, but don’t delude yourself for a minute. It’s there.
People know what side their bread is buttered on. We’ve all seen waiters and waitresses being gracious to horrible customers. The same thing applies to ineffective, and even nasty bosses. Most people won’t let their distaste show, at least not in person. But in today’s wired world, frustrated employees can make their grievances public. A quick glance at Glassdoor reveals thousands of, as Glen Close put it, “writers who got their feelings hurt.” It’s worth noting, The Nanny Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada were both penned by people who spent their days smiling and nodding to a boss they disdained.
I’ve worked with several executives who were stunned to read their 360 feedback and find out their people thought they were rude, incompetent or dismissive.
When you’re the boss, you have to look deeper than surface smiles to find out what your team really thinks. Think about the issues they talk to you about. If they’re asking you for help, and you’re not providing it, it’s not going unnoticed. Remember, there’s nothing more dangerous than an employee who got their feelings hurt.