Have you ever had a boss where, no matter how hard you tried, you could never see eye to eye?
A few years ago, I was in a closed-door meeting with a manager over a misunderstanding about which reactions I was to run, when I was to run them, and how I was to run them. I could tell that defending myself would have little effect, even if I had valid points. Instead, I apologized and asked for another chance. If I were younger and had fewer responsibilities, I might have just walked away.
Those next few months were both tense and humbling. I routinely checked in with my manager and was embarrassingly explicit about the experiments I was running. Often, I felt that I wasn’t making any progress in our relationship. But I truly enjoyed the chemistry I was doing, I was learning new science, and I liked my coworkers. Something told me that if I made it out the other side, I would learn some valuable lessons about patience and getting along with my boss in a tough situation.
Most bosses don’t start off with a lot of training in managing people but instead find themselves suddenly in charge of a group of people, and they have to learn on the fly. They’re often strong chemists, with encyclopedic knowledge of the chemistry literature, and they possess profound mechanistic insight. However, communication with their direct reports may not be their strong suit. They may send out four-page e-mail missives in the middle of the night, or they might call you on Sunday afternoons. Or perhaps they might not talk with you at all.
I’ll admit, I’m not the perfect employee by any means. At my worst, I can be stubborn, apathetic, or self-righteous. I can bristle like an ornery porcupine, especially when I feel that I am being micromanaged. When a boss dictates the very last details of experiments, it’s hard not to snarl, “Tell me what to do, not how to do it!”
But bosses are people, too. They can be moody, annoyed, or prone to fits of anger or despair when things don’t go their way—just like anyone else. Over the years, I’ve tried to calm my immediate emotional response to the perceived assessment of my abilities and become better at understanding the intent of what my supervisors were asking me to do.
One of my greatest insights into the mind of a manager came when my children were toddlers. My wife and I occasionally had to find a babysitter to look after them. One time, we came home to find our house in shambles, and I gained just a bit of sympathy for my managers. Despite my disappointment with the babysitter, it was instructive to try to be the best boss that I could be: someone who gave clear guidelines, rewarded good performance, and listened patiently to employee concerns; someone who could express disappointment without being unkind or abrupt.
Being a good manager isn’t easy. But a good boss can be a great teacher and mentor. My research adviser was phenomenal at showing me the holes in my chemical intuition and inspiring me to do better work. When I’m submitting reports, I still hear his voice asking me, “Is it perfect?”
During the experience with my difficult supervisor, I was glad to have family and friends who could commiserate and listen to me vent. It was during one of these conversations that my retired father offered me a gem of encouragement. “You know,” he said, “lots of times, bosses move on.” And that’s how it happened. One day, my supervisor announced that he was leaving for another position. We shook hands, and he left. Even though I still bristle at the memory of being micromanaged, I came out the other side just a little bit wiser.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.