Manager Too Nice?

A question for Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss who is a friend of the family and consequently won’t correct me.

At the frozen yogurt shop that I worked at over the summer, and plan to work at again this summer, my manager treats me as a friend. She is very close with my mom and she loves me. I feel that she doesn’t feel comfortable reprimanding me, or telling me when I am wrong. She does not want me to think of her differently. Although I never want to be told that I am wrong, I do want to know if I am doing something wrong. I get embarrassed because no one takes the time to teach me. She does not mind me asking questions, but I want to know. I do not know how to go about the situations. She is in charge, yet she does not necessarily act like it. I want to have someone that I can ask questions to.


How to Talk Straight


Dear How to Talk Straight:

Yours is an unusual question, and, since you say you will again be working at the yogurt shop this summer, I predict you are again thinking about ways to talk straight with your “Too Nice Boss.” Work life is an on-going learning experience if we see it that way. Your posing this question is to explore how you might answer it, even before you get an answer from the Workplace Doctor.

Apparently, you work well and are competent, so your boss hasn’t felt that she must correct you, nor has she needed to because she has seen you soon correct yourself. You don’t say if you have ever informally talked with her about talk. I don’t expect that you have. Talk about talk is a topic that isn’t often talked about even in university interpersonal communication courses. Yet it is a way to transform a boss-bossed relationship to one in which the two of you make it as normal to talk business, normal to talk about less effective performance and normal to talk about your dreams as it is to talk small talk. How do you go about this?

There is no set formula nor is it a one-time conversation. You might approach such a talk directly or indirectly or combine them. Here are several suggestions to consider, some which you likely have unconsciously already done, beginning with an indirect approach:

Approach your boss as a mentor. She undoubtedly wants to see you see her that way. So informally and perhaps in a sit-down conversation one day, tell her about your dream job. She obviously doesn’t expect you to want to work in a yogurt shop for the rest of your life. For example, you could acknowledge that your dream job might be impractical and based on the kind of celebrity-minded world that young women and some men see. Ask her if your dream job were to host a show that interviewed celebrities, what she would advise you do to prepare for such a job. Let her dream with you and talk about grooming, clothes and who is cheating a partner. I predict your boss will help you weigh the pros and cons of such a dream job.

She might simply say, “Go for it, girl”; however, she might dare to help you think about what really is of value; and if you are just struck by the aura of fame and fortune. I don’t know if your boss is a practical kind of individual or if she is entrepreneurial, or if she is a socially conscious kind of individual, but you will learn about that from the kinds of questions and comments she makes to your dream-talk conversation. If she is practical, she will pose questions about the cost of education and school. She will talk about how some young adults are trapped in jobs they don’t like because of getting pregnant. She will tell you about those whose marriages are happy and unhappy with the hope that you will seek a career that will enable you to support yourself if single. In short you will learn the practical and important lessons your boss has learned.

On the other hand if she is business-minded, she will tell you about what it takes to start and manage a business, its financial know-how and lessons she has learned the hard way. And if she is keenly aware of social problems, she might talk about the extreme income gap between those at the top and at the bottom or be concerned about the very real consequences of global warming; of droughts and fires, hurricanes and tornadoes due to our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels human causes for global warming. Such talk will enrich your and her understanding of how a career path can ignore or make a difference in this complex world of ours. If you ask for her advice, whatever her strong interests, she will seek to help you think through your career directions; its ups and downs and most of all its values. 2. Next consider a direct approach to talk about talk with your too nice manager. As your conversations progress, you probably will also raise the issue of talking with those in authority, even someone like her who is the nicest boss in the world of yogurt.

This could evolve to you candidly saying what you wrote in this question to Ask the Workplace Doctors; that you feel she might be too nice to you because she is your mother’s friend and that you want her to be frank with you as she would with any employee. 3. Finally, here is yet another suggestion for dealing with this question that incidentally is not something about which to worry. An indirect group approach merits consideration.

You might suggest that the Workplace Doctors recommends that a work crew can benefit from skull sessions, just as do sports teams before and after a game. Such sessions can be times to applaud work done and or to discuss how to correct mistakes. They can zero in on cutting wasted supplies, time, and money. They provide opportunity to brainstorm innovative ways to boost productivity. Skull sessions are times to talk about talk; to ask and reflect on how a work crew might communicate more effectively. A tangible outcome from skulls sessions is to spell out communication do and don’t rules, such rules as when one should call in and to talk to a co-worker and boss directly and not to gossip about them behind their backs . These rules inform and educate about what is expected. When employees collaboratively generate the rule, they “buy in” to them. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that can happen in a yogurt shop.

William Gorden