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Do You Want to Be a “Boss”?

In my first job back in 2008 I was building a nonprofit organization. We were hiring our first full-time employee, a program coordinator to support operations. I was going to be that person’s supervisor. A couple of weeks after starting, our new hire was on the phone with a customer. At some point in that conversation she said “let me check with my boss”, turned to me and asked me a question.

I don’t remember the exact context, but I distinctly remember feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. I don’t know why, but something about that word ‘boss’ turned me off and I didn’t like being referred to as someone’s boss.

I spent seven years managing / supervising / being the ‘boss’. I didn’t go to any training, didn’t know much or thought about what that means, and approached the role with the traditional mindset of what I saw around me: directing work, setting goals, conducting annual performance reviews and the usual HR processes that most people hate.

So what made me uncomfortable back then? Let’s analyze some of the vocabulary we use in today’s workplace.

Boss comes from the Dutch and means ‘master’, and not as in one of the Dutch masters (i.e. artists), but as a master over another person.

Supervisor comes from Latin and means ‘one who inspects and directs the work of others’. The verb “supervise” basically means to ‘see above’, or more accurately, to ‘oversee’, essentially, looking over someone’s shoulder to make sure they are working.

Manager also comes from Latin, from ‘manus’ (hand) and in Italian ‘maneggiare’ means to control, centuries ago used in the context of training horses… More recently, after the Industrial Revolution ‘managers’ were deemed necessary because workers would otherwise be inefficient and wouldn’t know what to do.

80% of first-time managers get hired or promoted to managers without any training. 60% of them underperform, or worse, fail in their first year. So is it any wonder that a good number of bosses / supervisors / managers think their role is to tell others what to do and look over their shoulders to make sure they are doing it?

There is a fundamental misconception about what it means to be a boss / supervisor / manager, and that’s hurting people and organizations. Why do people leave a job? The number one reason is their manager… And if it’s not their manager, it’s the interaction with co-workers or the organizational culture, frequently marked by distrust and lack of respect.

We must change the narrative. We must honor people and treat them with respect regardless of who’s the ‘boss’. It’s paramount for those of us who are bosses / supervisors / managers to check our behavior and reevaluate our role. (Perhaps while we are at it, we should introduce more appropriate language.) It’s NOT to control someone, look over their shoulders, tell them what to do, wait for them to make mistakes and punish them for it.

Above all, be kind to your staff, nurture their strengths, treat them with respect, be a coach, support them, help them learn and grow, show them you care.

Was I a good ‘boss’? Sometimes yes, alas, sometimes definitely not. What kind of a ‘boss’ are you going to be?


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