Quit managing with 'social auto-pilot' engaged

You know when someone is asking you a question because they have to.

The lovely checkout person at your supermarket is the perfect example; they’ll usually greet you with a chirpy ‘How’re you going today?’ and most of us know the appropriate response is ‘fine thanks, and you?’ mumbled into the trolley while we start unloading the groceries. It’s almost an automated process. We are so conditioned that we often answer without even waiting for the question sometimes! We’ve all said ‘good thanks’ in response to someone asking ‘how can I help you?’ because we’re pretty much on social auto-pilot.

The reason is because these types of interactions are low value. We aren’t going to unload our life’s problems on a poor 17-year-old high school student working a checkout (ok, some people DO divulge all that, but that’s a whole other issue!).

We know the checkout person can’t solve the problems we’re facing and we know they are asking how we are to be polite rather than because they have any emotional connection to us or concern for our wellbeing. So we make the interaction as pleasant and as painless as possible with idle chit-chat and low emotional investment. And that’s ok for check-out operators, people at the drive through window or the barista brewing your favourite caffeinated beverage.

But, sadly I've had managers that have pushed me into social auto-pilot mode. You get to work and there’s a perfunctory and occasionally awkward greeting. Sometimes they’ll mix it up and ask how your weekend was, but you note that their eyes remain fixed on their screen of choice so you mumble some inane reply and move on.

you note that their eyes remain fixed on their screen of choice so you mumble some inane reply and move on

Then you have the joy of the one-on-one meeting. You both know they have 4 minutes of ‘personal connection’ time scheduled and the awkward ‘so how are your pets going?’ or ‘the kids must be back at school now? or ‘you still playing touch on a Wednesday night? questions begin. I know you may be thinking ‘well at least the manager knows they have pets, or kids or play touch!’ and sure it’s a good start, but in some of my experiences the questions have been the same month after month.

I’d be impressed with that from a senior manager I saw once a quarter, but the manager I work with every day?!? I expect more.

I read a horror story on LinkedIn today where an employee was publicly berated in a video-conference for dialing in 10 minutes late to a weekly team meeting. The employee had worked at the organisation, and with this particular manager, for years without incident.

Rather than checking in on the employee after the meeting finished, this manager chose to dress them down in front of their peers for a total misdemeanour. The real kicker for me was this… The employee is a single parent. They have 5-year-old child with special needs who they’re solo parenting while currently trying to work from home with no support.

So, for me there are two possible scenarios here: