A good friend of mine told me recently that she was fired from her job.
It was shocking to me — this friend was a model student and hard worker, everyone generally loved her and she rarely, if ever, fought. I had known that there were difficulties in her workplace, that she was unhappy with the company and management, but had mostly reassured her that she would not be fired.
It was not shocking to her — In fact, she spoke of the frankness and calmness of the situation, when she was quietly called into a conference room with her direct supervisor, simply and quickly notified that she was let go and the reason, and that she needed to pack up her desk and depart for the last time. According to her, she did so quietly, quickly, and “walked into freedom.”
But one thing did strike her as curious. It was the reason she was fired. My friend and her manager had a…complicated…relationship and often disagreed. Though, again, according to my friend, she typically swallowed her pride and agreed to her manager. She described her manager exactly how she described the company: erratic, directionless, unstable, and unpredictable. She rarely felt supported or knew why she was doing what she was asked to do. She said that her boss could be a great guy, super nice one minute, but then an utter nightmare the next.
This led, quite understandably, to near-constant confusion as to what was to be done or what anything meant. I trust her when she says that if she didn’t understand something, or was foggy as to her responsibilities, she always sought clarification. And she said when she did so, it mostly made sense, at least enough for her to finish the job at hand without further trouble.
But sometimes, the direction given was so vague, so confusing, so outlandish that asking for clarification made things worse. And often, when asking for clarification, she was berated for not understanding the first time and was left to her own devices to figure things out. Google was her best friend at this job.
Having been in this role for quite some time, she became used to, maybe even complacent, the bizarre and ambiguous managerial methods of the company. Over the course of the last few months, she had been given a new set of responsibilities and tasks to complete but had been told to hold for further instruction and strategy once those tasks were finished. So she completed her work and waited, making sure to check in every couple of weeks with her manager and see what further instruction was needed.
The manager, according to my friend, continued to tell her to wait and that a plan was being created. So she kept waiting. But recently, this particular assignment came under increasing scrutiny from those up top due to slow progress and a fire was lit. She confidently believed she had done her part, adequately completed her tasks, and that further direction was forthcoming. But until it came, she would continue to do what needed to be done with as much information as she had.
Eventually, the scrutiny became too much to bear and her manager decided to lay it on her (for the umpteenth time). She was scolded like a child (I’ve seen the messages) for not doing enough work, for improperly completing simple tasks, and for what amounts to not reading her manager’s mind. She took it like a champ, swallowed her pride (for the umpteenth time), apologized for what she could see was her fault and walked away. The next day she was fired.
The tasks given were so simple that it’s difficult to imagine her improperly completing them. She’s insanely intelligent and if she had felt, at any moment, that she did not understand, she would have spoken up and asked for clarification.
And that’s the part that confused her. You see, her boss specifically mentioned that he was unhappy because she did not understand him and that that is not his fault. And for my friend, she confirmed that she truly believed she had understood what was asked of her and did it. There wasn’t really a moment where she felt confused, the direction given was simple and plain, the tasks were easy and quick.
So, it got me thinking. Is it EVER someone’s fault for not understanding another? Should anyone be punished for a misunderstanding? Who’s responsibility is it to make sure that something said was clear — the person who said it (the giver) or the person who heard it (the receiver)?
Maybe it’s obvious, but I’ve always felt that so long as the receiver isn’t confused or unsure, then it is never the receiver’s fault. It is the giver’s fault for not communicating effectively.
Of course, if a task was improperly completed because the receiver wasn’t sure of something and was confused by the instruction, or perhaps didn’t really even know what was expected and the receiver did nothing to rectify this, then it is more the receiver’s responsibility. At the end of the day, how could anyone know if something wasn’t communicated correctly if the receiver never spoke up? Always seek clarification.
But, say the receiver misinterpreted the instruction but fully believed in the misinterpretation. Perhaps a few rare circumstances aside, I’d say it is then the giver who is at fault for not communicating properly — especially if it is a manager.
Ultimately, it is a manger’s responsibility to ensure the work of their subordinates is being completed successfully. A manager can not simply raise their hand in surrender, disowning any association with their team, if tasks were not completed correctly or at all. Being a leader means owning up to the work of the team. If the team fails, in most cases, the leader also fails. Of course, there are instances where it is entirely on the team or a member — the manager can’t hope to assume 100% responsibility for every single action. But when it comes to producing work, that’s what a manager is hired for.
So, following that, if the team or a single member misinterpret the poor communication on the manager’s part, that is entirely on the manager.
This seems simple, right? It seems obvious. If the manager (or the giver) refuses to take responsibility for a misinterpretation, then they are basically assuming the team member (or the receiver) should have been able to read their mind. Preposterous!
But, if it’s so obvious, then why does it happen so often in the workplace? My friend’s story is not the only one I’ve heard and God knows I’ve been in the same situation, where it was entirely my fault for not seeking clarification and where it was entirely my manager’s fault for poor communication. I’ve been blamed and reprimanded for things that were very much out of my control. It could be one of the most frustrating things imaginable.
Yet, it happens frequently.
I think there’s a leadership crisis in the American workplace. I think that increasingly, those who should be leaders are rejecting responsibility, whether out of their own insecurities, incompetence, or even ignorance. Perhaps, few even know what it takes to be a leader these days.
Who can blame them? Look at the leaders we have as examples in the world. Men and women who constantly and selfishly serve only themselves, who engage in corruption, who facilitate narcissism, who care so little for the work they do and the people they serve.
It’s not always out of a bad place, either. Perhaps some leaders simply were never taught and just don’t know — it was poorly communicated to them. A new generation is rising up with more opportunities for the younger folks than ever before. They are assuming leadership positions having never truly been tested or even taught the role. Furthermore, the workplace is changing — more remote positions are opening, once-standard rules and guidelines are being dropped for flexibility and comfort, rigid hierarchal structures are abandoned out of distrust for those higher-up. It’s a changing field, perhaps changing too quickly for anyone to keep up and adequately train the next generation of leaders to respond efficiently.
What’s the solution?
I can’t be certain because I’ve extrapolated this argument to the stratosphere.
But, I do know, communication is a good start. A leader is nothing if not an excellent communicator. The greatest leaders in history were masters at language, masters at devising a vision that had the potential to be achieved, and masters at communicating. They painted pictures of ideas and utopias, of what could be, and motivated people to achieve greatness: Kennedy, both Roosevelts, Lincoln, Adams, Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandella, Napoleon Bonaparte, Bono, Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Branson — all phenomenal leaders (whether you like them or not) and all experts at communication. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have had quite a following.
So, how do we bring this down to sea level? Well, everyone is affected by communication, whether you’re a legendary world leader or a Pennyslvania-based mid-sized paper company regional salesman. There’s a manger in your life and you depend on that manager possessing great communication skills and owning their responsibilities as a leader. If they do not, as in the case of my friend, if the reject responsibility and deflect blame for their poor communication, poor thought-process, poor work ethic, and poor ideas, you need to make a decision. Stay, and respect the title of your manager until the ship inevitably sinks. Or, if able, decide that it’s not worth it and leave — find a position, find a company, that you can fully offer your stellar skills and abilities, a company that does everything in its power to lead you with integrity, respect, and honesty. They’re out there, I promise.
Life is so short and I hate to hear stories like my friend’s story. Because it’s a sucky situation, but a far too common one. I know the anxiety it can create, the endless confusion and permeating frustration. It affects your life and drags you down. The one thing a leader should be good at and they fail miserably.
I could tell my friend was always filled with immense anxiety and ever-deepening grief over that silly job and a small part (maybe a big part) of me breathed a sigh of relief for her when she broke the news. She was free. Free from the insecurity and free to find a new opportunity that would value her and empower her to grow and succeed once more.
Doesn’t that sound nice?