Managers, do your subordinates work under, for, or with you? An interesting question don’t you think?
I recently interviewed a retired manager and when I asked her how she would like her former subordinates to describe her, she replied “I hope they would say that they enjoyed working for and with me, not under me”. As I sat there pondering her response, I became increasingly aware of just how subtle the differences were between these three prepositions and just how much difference it may make in terms of performance, morale, team cohesiveness, motivation, creativity, initiative, and out put a manager’s answer might make.
In a very real sense, in a hierarchical organization, all subordinates work under some manager’s authority. As subordinates we understand that reality. But the term UNDER itself carries just a bit of negative weight, of being burdened down, of being on some sub-level, of clearly not being of equal class or status. In other words, our associations with the notion of being under generally imply a subservient power relationship and are not entirely pleasant.
Working FOR someone conveys a slightly more pleasing connotation. While our subordinate status is still implied, it somehow seems less onerous than being under someone’s thumb. Working for someone does not exactly imply a partnership but it makes the notion of achieving that sort of working relationship seem more plausible.
Working WITH someone comes closest to the idea of a partnership. It implies a collaborative endeavor where all parties have a roughly equal say, the right to say no, the notion that decisions will be the result of discussion and negotiation, and that consensual agreement on direction will often replace following an order.
But, one might argue, don’t all subordinates still always have the reality of being under some bosses authority, regardless of how they may choose to view it or how it may seem on any given day? Yes! However, I believe what my manager colleague was driving at was how the relationship between her subordinates and herself felt most of the time – day to day so to speak – allowing for those times where she indeed had to wield her managerial authority or remind someone that she was, after all, the boss.
I loved my colleague’s response because it spoke directly to the power all managers have to shape the nature of the day-to-day relationship they have with their subordinates. While no manager can escape the de-facto, unequal quality of the power relationship that exists between them and their subordinates, she or he can certainly minimize the occasions when they feel the need to remind a subordinate of who is in charge, or to exercise that power to order compliance.
The best managers understand the sense of freedom and autonomy that comes when subordinates work in an environment that fosters and encourages collaborative endeavor, everyone working WITH each other, each fulfilling their designated role, each contributing their fair share of ideas and input to a collective goal. The best mangers also understand that the more freedom and autonomy they give their subordinates, the more potential they gain to unleash the spirit of initiative, creativity, passion and sense of cohesive ownership that leads to high quality performance. It is the paradox of managing: the more power over others you surrender, the more power you gain through others to move your organization forward.
So how do you hope your subordinates will eventually describe you as a manager: as someone they enjoyed working with, for, or under??????