The scrutiny of your public
You wonder why anybody would want to live their lives in the spotlight. Those that are in positions of authority such as politicians, and even those who don’t have any particular legislative power such as celebrities, are deeply scrutinized by the press and members of the public. Tabloids publish a vast array of content about the minutiae of these people’s lives: where they are currently on holiday, and of course, not forgetting the conversation about whether they should be on holiday at all; snide commentary on a gaff during a public appearance; the paradoxical positions they may find themselves in where there is misalignment between their policy or beliefs and the reality of their lives; the list is endless. It must be utterly exhausting.
But how many of these scrutinies are unique to public figures? Perhaps we could take the examples in the previous paragraph and reimagine them in the context of the workplace. Why is it that the CEO is currently hiking in the Alps with her family when the whole company knows that they didn’t hit their target this quarter and there are serious issues in the sales organization? How inept can our VP Product be if he can’t even get his facts right during the presentation of the roadmap at the company meeting? How can it be possible that our CFO won’t let any of her team work from home more than one day a week when she works from home two days a week herself? The scrutiny of those in positions of power can be just as prevalent in the office.
Visibility encourages scrutiny
As you progress along the management track, you will find that increasingly senior positions invite more scrutiny from your colleagues. Going up the org chart from an individual contributor to a lead, VP, SVP, or C-level position has a similar effect to those who take up seats in public office. Instead of just being a contributor to a team, you begin to represent the team conceptually as their leader. At more senior levels, whether you like it or not, your role can expect you to embody particular values that the company holds dear, as you act as a role model for others in your organization. During good times this can be fantastic: the company is thriving and you are the living embodiment of all that is wonderful and successful. During bad times, you get the fingers pointed at you, despite the net result of the current situation being generated by a whole organization, rather than just one person.
We all want role models. We want people to look up to who we can unite behind and put our faith in. These people set an example about how the rest of us should act. Think of the involvement of public figures during times of national grief or crisis. We have an expectation that they will be present at particular events, that they will say the right words, and that the correct symbolic gesture will be performed: the laying of a wreath, the cutting of a ribbon, the giving of a speech. This accountability naturally breeds scrutiny when the people in the position of role models inevitably demonstrate that they too are only human. They make mistakes, they get angry or they do something stupid, just like everyone else. Like those public figures, we can’t expect perfection from those above us in the organization. It will only lead to disappointment.
What can you do?
Well, you can only be yourself.
A coping strategy for those in positions of power is to compartmentalize their personality into their “work” self and their “home” self. This, with time, can become exhausting as you can feel that you are living a double existence. It gets harder to switch back and forth. I used to employ this tactic. I remember the times that I would come home after work and my partner would wonder why I was acting “like a robot” and why I was not the person that she saw at the weekend. The truth is that you can’t be a perfect embodiment of your role. You can only be you, warts and all.
You will encounter judgement from both directions: being on the receiving end of scrutiny from those that report to you, and also you will naturally feel this towards those you report into (and beyond). Where does it come from and how do we deal with it?
Scrutiny from those below
To err is human. You too will have bad days as a manager. You will have days where you will lose your sanity and get angry or stupid or both. You may do something that conflicts with a principle that you’ve preached before. These conflicts between conceptual position in the organization and being a human invite a variety of emotions from those that report to you. I’ve ordered them from good to bad.
- Kindness and understanding: This is the best possible reaction to come from your direct reports. If you’re having a bad day or a bad week, they understand and they want to be on your side making things better. They may ask if there is anything you can delegate, or they may just take you out for a coffee and a chat to see if you’re OK.
- Concern and worry: Those that look up to you for stability will feel your situation deeply and potentially catastrophize over the real meaning of it, even if that meaning is something that they have invented. You might have just had a terrible night’s sleep and are a bit grouchy, but they think that you dislike them and their job is at risk. You may need to work from home a lot due to a sick child, but they think you’re off doing job interviews elsewhere.
- Resentment: They begin to turn away from you emotionally. “Why is it that I have to work for a leader who is not representing me better in the organization? How could they make that mistake so publicly? How can they be paid more than me? I do all of the work!”
- Mutiny: They fully turn and can begin to sabotage you. They’re not on your side during meetings with senior leadership, and you feel that they are trying to throw you under the proverbial bus. Maybe they feel misrepresented and are rebelling, or maybe this is the coup for your job. This is the danger zone.
The further down this list that your staff may be, the more work that it is going to be to get them back on your side. As with most issues with interpersonal relationships, open and honest communication is the remedy. Be able to have the conversation that challenges them on how they currently feel towards you and dig into why that is. If they are worried about their own job, then you can reassure them. If they’re trying to throw you under the bus, then perhaps it is because they haven’t seen enough progression in their own role, and you can turn the conversation into how they can get more (although, perhaps it will take a while to forgive your proverbial Brutus).
Scrutiny towards those above you
Even if you have mastered the art of identifying and remedying how your direct reports react to your own wobbles, it is natural to feel any or all of the same emotions to those who are above your own position in the org chart. You work with them closely, you know their strengths and their weaknesses. You’ve seen them on good days and bad days. And get this: if you report into the executive of a public company, you may feel even more resentment if they’re having a tough time; you have access to their salary data! “How on earth can my boss be paid that much yet can’t stay any later than 6 PM when there is so much we have to work on?”
As hard as it can be, you need to align your misgivings with your own manager from a place of empathy. They are probably subject to even more unstructured debate and uncontrolled emotion than you are. They may have family and dependents that pull them in multiple directions. Approach them with kindness and understanding and ask whether there is anything that you can do to help them. There may even be the possibility for career progression if they begin to delegate more to you through your helpfulness. Don’t let resentment turn to mutiny: it never ends well for anyone involved.
Being a leader in an organization increases your visibility for both good and bad reasons. You can be the proud figurehead for recent success, but you can also be subject to scrutiny and judgement due to particular standards that others hold you to, whether they are realistic or not. Getting those that report to you to see that you are just like them, regardless of your lofty title, takes time and candor in your relationships because after all, you’re only human. Just remember to apply that same empathy and respect to those above you in the organization.