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When part of your job is caring for a boss who is too needy

When part of your job is caring for a boss who is too needy
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 11 37 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 26 2007. 11 37 AM IST
One former supervisor of Alina Tuttle-Melgar had a neediness that included requesting staffers to babysit and to provide transportation outside work. Her manager also made the entire staff eat lunch together and banned the consumption or mention of eggs.
That might sound imperious but to her supervisor, compliance wasn’t a reminder of authority, it was a measure of friendship. The manager “liked to think that we were doing these things and helping as friends,” she says. “We really functioned as the support group.”
If Tuttle-Melgar got a call at home from her boss, it was never to check in on a work project but, say, to get a ride to the airport. The office egg ban forced her to try to convince a contractor to find paint that didn’t use the word “eggshell.” She spitefully ate eggs in her boss’s absence, even though she doesn’t like them.
There’s nothing wrong with a little vulnerability in managerial ranks but when the steady hand of leadership withdraws into a needy wreck, the boss becomes the work. Appetite for attention comes in many guises: friendship, traveling by posse, or regularly scheduled meetings (pow-wowing for kowtowing). Withholding reassurances from a needy supervisor is like failing to pay your minimum balance; it’ll cost you more later.
One of the latest guises of neediness is “feedback,” commonly known outside the workplace as fishing for compliments. Whenever Jonathan Copulsky got out of a meeting with one former boss, the man would ask, “How did I do?” And if Copulsky said, “You were really good,” his boss would say: “What were some of the really good things I did?” It was all, his boss would say, in the interest of improving his performance “so next time,” Copulsky recalls him saying, “I can be even better.”
If that were true, however, then Copulsky’s constructive criticism would have been welcome, too. It wasn’t.
This would be annoying enough behavior with a co-worker, says Rick Gilkey, associate professor of organizational behavior and psychiatry at Emory University, “but a boss creates a whole ecology around this dynamic.”
Employees are forced to take the path of least resistance. “It’s like nature taking the least amount of energy to accomplish a task, which in this case is saying, ‘Great job,’” says Gilkey.
Just because the neediness isn’t always brazen—Hey, guys, wait up!—doesn’t mean it isn’t obvious. John Traylor’s former manager told his reports to call him by his first name unless someone from outside the organization were present. In that case, “Doctor” would be used.
“If you were to slip up and say ‘Larry,’ he would be incensed,” says Traylor.
It takes only a few managers diverting multiple salaried staffers for some all-expenses-paid ego trip to hurt the bottom line. When the boss of one former cosmetic executive accompanied her to a trade show in Italy one year, typical market research was scratched. “Her biggest concern was getting her hair blown,” she says. She tried to ditch her at the salon but her boss said: “You’re not leaving me alone, are you?” Then they had to go shopping for sweaters and miniskirts, spending roughly seven hours shopping on a three-day trip that cost about $25,000 (about Rs10.25 lakh) in airfare and lodging. “We never discussed business.”
That adds up. “It’s a huge drain on time, energy and money,” says Maryanne Murray, who once worked with an impeccably dressed boss who would have “severe panic attacks” 45 minutes before any presentation. “What are you wearing?” she’d ask Murray by phone. It was Murray’s job to make sure all the extra people her boss invited to make her look part of a big team had something to say. “They basically were props,” she says.
Michelle Hirsch worked with an attorney who once discovered his fly was unzipped in the courtroom and made it her responsibility to ensure that didn’t happen again. Equally important was informing him if he was too heavy-handed with his cologne, which meant sniffing him.
Even if he was doused enough to burst into flames, “I would always say, ‘You’re fine,’” remembers Hirsch.
“I remember thinking, there is no way any of my friends are having to do this for their boss,” she says.
Write to wsj@livemint.com 
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 11 37 AM IST
More Topics: Columnist | Sandberg |