Ideally, a cordial relationship between the boss and the subordinate is essential for the success of the two and their institution. Pragmatically, however, it is not easy to establish and maintain such a relationship. If there is a generation gap, the relationship gets more complicated. Even within the same generation, different academic, professional and exposure backgrounds play a role in the boss-subordinate dynamics. Generally, however, intra-generational differences are regarded as easier to manage than the inter-generational ones.
In Nepal’s case, whether we, the bosses, like it or not, the famous saying, ‘the boss is always right’ rules. The subordinates are by default perceived as made up of inferior DNA. The new cohort maybe better educated, updated with latest development in the professional discipline, and also familiar with the state of art technology.
So, what is common in our organizations is a conflict between experience on the one side and possibilities, hopes, and desires to experiment for better results on another, taking many twists and turns. It may be relatively easy to manage the unskilled subordinates. However, a parallel approach may not work in the case of skilled and knowledge workers.
Subordinates often criticize us as HAKIMS: HA for hathut – ‘ad hocism,’ KI for kichpitch – ‘unnecessary tension creation’; and M for Mélange – ‘mixing and managing things on whims and fancy’.
But, in truth, the bosses are responsible to manage the most valuable assets, the knowledge workers. If that is the case, can we programme a pleasant, win-win, relationship between these two breeds?
Cynthia Loh offers certain ways: understand your boss’s style; understand subordinate’s style; think of the company (institution); manage disagreement; don’t threaten the subordinate; be truthful and never over-promise. The easy and straightforward solution may work in established corporate cultures.
In our context, however, a majority of the bosses still prefer the ‘lord Ganesha’ style of smart work and chakari. Linda A. Hill, a Harvard University professor of management defends, in one of her recent articles, ‘Be a boss not a friend’, the need to maintain a certain gap with the subordinates. Bosses, to Hill, should draw a line between friendship and professional relations, show and stick as situation demands; and accept each as they are. Practically, you cannot be friends with all of your people in equal manner. “All your relationships should be bounded and defined. They're not about liking, chemistry, or personality. While those factors don't disappear, and you will have to deal with them, they do not and should not define your fundamental relationship with your people”.
Some scholars have stressed the role of subordinates in building a solid alliance with the supervisor: use the law of slight edge; be the glue-supportive not competitive; follow the platinum rule and learn to handle criticism. The golden rule suggests we treat others in the way that we like to be treated. The platinum rule is “do unto others in the style they would prefer to be done unto”.
The relationship between boss and subordinates also depends on the culture of the institution and values prevailing in the society. The effect of culture on boss-subordinate relationship depends on four basic characteristics of the society; power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, and achievement orientation. Subject to other things remaining the same, relationship would be cordial in a culture with values of collectivism along with low distance or near to power than in other cultures.
Five types of behavior by bosses are believed to foster trust in subordinates: i) consistency, ii) integrity, iii) communication, iv) delegation, and v) consideration.
The super-ordinates have to realize that their subordinates’ performance matter to them in achieving their goal and objective of the institution. However, a majority of us do take it in a different manner and say it is they who need to achieve. The primary official is more responsible than the secondary.
Managing relationship with subordinates is important than managing it with the boss as there are more subordinates than bosses in most organizations.
If we are to encourage and respect new ideas – allow experiments; be environmentally and socially sensitive; encourage and practice two way communication; feel and practice mutual respect; bring cognitive dissonance to minimum possible level; practice supportive leadership style; take suggestions in constructive manner; find difference between lip service and real intention; we should never forget that our subordinates are responsible for their acts and we are solely accountable to achieve organization goals.
(Acharya is a management practitioner and an academician.)