Lines the Boss Should Never Cross? There’s No Good Advice in THIS List

© Marek - Fotolia.com
© Marek - Fotolia.com

Here’s a story that I came across this week at Forbes that caught even my cynical and jaded eye — Six Lines Your Boss Should Never Cross.

Ok, I’ll bite. I’ve managed and supervised a lot of people over the course of my career, and I’ve worked for some bosses, who were, to put it gently, real pieces of work. So I wondered: does this Forbes list of those uncrossable managerial lines jibe with my own hard-earned experiences?

Here’s the Forbes list; you take a read and decide:

  1. Your boss makes references to your salary in front of other staff.
  2. Your boss reprimands you in front of other employees.
  3. Your boss has unreasonable expectations.
  4. Your boss shares too many personal details.
  5. Your boss makes inappropriate references.
  6. Your boss implies that sex, race, age or religion is a factor in work performance.

Why is this list so lame?

I can almost hear what you are thinking all the way over here in Southern California: “That’s it? That’s the list of lines the boss should never cross? How lame.”

Yes, it IS lame, and that’s because it veers between what is managerially unacceptable (something a good manager should know to never do), and what is just simply boorish behavior regardless if a supervisor or anyone else does it.

For example, learning that it’s bad form (and legally suspect) to ever make public references to salaries is a lesson one should learn in Management or HR 101. Praising in public and criticizing (reprimanding) in private is part of that lesson, too.

But sharing personal details, making inappropriate references, and implying that sex-race-age-religion is a factor in work performance are all things that are just boorish and inappropriate for anyone in the workplace to be discussing in a public setting — whether it is a boss or someone else. It’s just too much information and too polarizing for a discussion on the job.

When “unreasonable expectations” are the norm

There’s one item on this list of boss “don’ts,” however, that confused me mightily, because it is something that just about all hard-driven and demanding bosses do all the time — that is, having “unreasonable expectations.”  As the Forbes article explains:

This one is tricky, as it may be difficult to determine whether the boss’s expectations are unfair. The bottom line is that managers need to communicate their expectations for work performance clearly, they should assist employees when needed, and set reasonable deadlines for projects.”

Now, I’ve worked for bosses both good and bad, and a common denominator in both was the notion of setting “unreasonable expectations.”

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With bad bosses, those out-of-line demands came with browbeating, verbal abuse, and (frequently) threats and bullying. I had one supervisor who spent the greater part of our last year together telling me that “I don’t think you’re up to this challenge,” and, “I don’t think you are able to make these changes” even though I had never, ever not been up to the task of driving change while working for him. That always left me with the implied, “and this means we’ll have to replace you” that was both menacing and frightening — and not the way a good manager should ever treat a trusted subordinate.

But, I’ve also worked for really wonderful bosses who also had “unreasonable expectations,” but they didn’t see them as unreasonable. What they saw, instead, was that they were “setting the bar high” in the hopes that it would motivate me to hit it or get pretty close in the process. Yes, in their mind “unreasonable expectations” were what good managers asked of their people because it drove them to push harder and give a better effort.

How good and bad bosses differ

The difference between how good and bad managers handle these over-the-top expectations is how they react when you don’t hit them. Do they yell and scream and threaten to fire you, as the bad bosses do, or, do they use it as an opportunity to mentor and coach you about how you can get closer and perhaps even exceed what some might view as unreasonable demands?

Good bosses (and HR professionals) know all this. They understand that setting the bar high is what successful managers do — just as they know that setting the bar high may mean that those working for them will fail to hit it when it is set at a level that many would view as “unreasonable.” It’s how the boss reacts to that failure (if it even is that) that is the key.

Yes, there are lines out there that managers should never cross, but you won’t find a meaningful discussion of that here at Forbes. My guess is that TLNT readers can come up with better suggestions for those never-to-be-crossed managerial lines than this Forbes writer did, and if you leave them in the comments below, I’ll pull them out for another post sometime soon.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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