Friday, September 10, 2010

You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore

Amid bushels of bad news, the story about industry giant Hewlett-Packard Company contained a rare gem. No, I’m not talking about the most recent skirmish over the hiring of a former HP CEO by a long-time affiliate, I’m talking about a comment praising the (former) HP business model. The article said HP employees hope the search for the new CEO will focus on “a return to . . . principles enshrined in the HP Way. . . . an egalitarian management style that encouraged employee profit-sharing, flexible schedules, work/life balance and instructed managers to get out among the employees.” Analysts say HP seeks best qualities of ex-CEOs, available at

As layoffs and other cost-cutting measures have proceeded throughout the recession (and, let’s face it, before the recession), the connection between management and other employees becomes more and more tenuous. And that, I believe, is ultimately bad for the company as a whole.

The relationship between supervisors and those they supervise is much like a marriage. It starts off rosy, with high expectations about the value the employee can add, and the touted company culture. Flowers may or not be involved (I was so touched when, years ago, my employer of less than one month sent flowers to the hospital when I had an emergency procedure!). After a while, there are attendance problems, and attitude problems, and the alleged expertise turns out to have been slightly fudged, the “flexible schedule” turns out to mean you can get out of Saturday work-days if you have a doctor’s note, and the company scales back its perks to donuts on Friday. Just as in a marriage, what started out with love songs and poetry turns into: “You don’t bring me flowers anymore.”

In my opinion, many of the disputes between employers and employees stem from a soured relationship based on a belief by the employee that she is not valued, and by the employer that the employee cares only about herself, not about the business. This is why I said that the removal of management from the workforce is damaging to the company: the long-term consequences can be significant.

So, the situation is as common as divorce. But is it unavoidable? I don’t think so.

I said earlier in this post that employment is like a marriage. In a good marriage, both partners can speak freely—including offering suggestions and constructive criticism. Each partner feels his/her needs and preferences are important to the other partner. And each partner suffers when the budget is tight, and shares the bounty when things are going well—and therefore feels invested in success.

I realize few people have such a perfect union! But if we are comfortable starting with this as an ideal for spousal relationships, and at least aiming in that direction, why not apply the ideal to work relationships? You know what they say: aim for the stars, and at least you’ll go far.

I am not suggesting we should all strive to be best buddies in the workplace (I don't recommend that, actually). And I have personally represented many employers who tell me, “I treated him like family, and in return he treated me—and the company—like dirt.” The principle I am espousing only works with buy-in from both sides. However, a Golden Rule principle would go a long way in this as in other relationships. And if flowers are warranted, send flowers.

For some concrete ideas about what this means in practice, see the article on this blog: It’s the Manager, Stupid! by Bill Leslie (reprinted with permission).


  1. The reason it is more difficult than not to have a fair, honest relationship between staff and management is the inherent power imbalance. Sure, both have power to terminate the relationship, but only one has power to define and control the behavior of the other, this making the less-powerful party in fear of retribution.

    Your point about the employee feeling unappreciated is pivotal to the issue. Both parties can get what they want if that is satisfied. But way too many managers are borderline sociopaths, and got into management as a result of their ability to be dangerously selfish. If they're pragmatic enough to pretend to appreciate staff, then maybe that part doesn't matter so much.

  2. JohnD, it sounds like you've had some pretty bad experiences, and for that you have my sympathy.

    I can't agree with you that "too many managers are borderline sociopaths." Most of the managers I've met (and represented) are just people, trying to make sure the work gets done so the company continues to make enough money to keep its employees employed. Most of them were low-level employees before they were managers, and they know what that feels like.

    The point of my posting was to encourage both subordinates AND managers to see each other as human beings, and to treat each other with respect and a commitment to making the relationship work.

    As far as control, I've seen an entire business come to a screeching halt to deal with a petty complaint by an employee. Which is why I said it takes two to tango--both sides have to be willing to try.

    I do hope you get the chance to be a manager (if you aren't already), so you can work to improve the lot of both supervisors and supervised!