Sucking all the air out of the room

Not so long ago, I was talking with an employee of a local company. I asked her how she likes working there. 

She said, in an exasperated tone, that her boss “just sucks all the air out of the room” when he’s in the office. That expression has been stuck in my head since then.

Knowing her boss fairly well, I had a pretty good idea what she meant: her boss is an Alpha Male with a strong instinct to control and micromanage others. I also noticed that he is quick to put down others–” they are all idiots” kind of talk. He thinks he is the only one who can guide and develop the company. 

As a result, when he’s around, those working for him don’t speak up and share their ideas for growing the company or doing things more efficiently. There is ONE way, and that can only come from the business owner, as others can’t be trusted to do anything right.

The result is a conditioning process that devalues the work and ideas of those who are paid well to do their tasks and grow the company. He has created a micro-managed workforce, one that cowers (to some extent) when he comes into the office. The employees, of course, are discouraged, and my understanding is that they are just not very happy to work there. 

I think we have all known people in our lives who are like this. These are the people, in my experience, who will interrupt often (especially men when women are speaking); will tend to ask very few genuine information-seeking questions; tend to dictate the process and try to intimidate others, proscribe in detail how the work should be done; focus on the negative and seldom recognize the positive; and, are oblivious to any feedback that might suggest better pathways forward for the business. They view themselves as infallible. 

From my forty years of work experience, I find that they almost always are men, though I had a female department chairperson in Japan who was a horrific “air sucking” boss.

The alternative, one that I hope I follow more often than not, is an open, collaborative workplace. Strong goal direction and big picture perspective (the forest) are essential, but let the details (the trees) be the responsibility of the employees. Asking more questions and dictating less. Listen to the answers and be open to change. Believe that each employee is extremely valuable to the organization and is capable. If not, train, retrain or replace. 

I also believe that for many things in my business I am NOT the smartest guy in the room; if I can ask the right questions and create a good environment, the employee who IS the smartest person in the room about that topic will speak up and take some ownership over solving the problem. 

So far, so good. We are now in our 16th year of business, growing every year, with remarkably low employee turnover. Better yet, I, and I hope my employees, genuinely like spending their days here creating awesomeness for our clients.