A piece of advice for new graduates

“Managers are people too”. 

That’s what someone told me in my first week.  At first, it seems like a strange, unnecessary observation.  Most graduates understand that their manager is indeed a person, not a canary or an antelope.  Sure enough though, we understand what people are getting at: managers have their own hopes, anxieties, lapses, and torments.  They are not gods or kings. 

The notoriety of the phrase is evidence enough that some corporate environments stoke suspicions that managers are not people.  Instead, we imagine that they are fire-breathing, stationary-throwing, red-faced dragons – or perhaps office ghosts, perpetually unavailable, too important to be seen on less than a month’s notice.  In my experience, such people are rare.  Still, our behaviour at work is ruled by impressions and the “immortal manager” impression endures. Hence, “managers are people too” is permanent advice for induction handbooks everywhere.

The advice means two things: first, we should not assume that managers are all steel and no soul.  People are brittle and so managers can bend and snap just like all of us.  “How are you?” is a beautiful question to anyone up and down the totem pole.  Care runs both directions.  Humans catch other humans in crisis, no matter the insignias on your shoulder.  Thank god for that.

Second, you have the right to talk with other people like you are exactly one whole of a human being, because you are.  Not half.  Not 90%.  Work is easier when we cease thinking that we’re talking to deities and instead to smart, reputable, ordinary humans.  The implications are liberating: we can speak up when we have a good idea.  We can call out bad eggs and rotten behaviour.  Criticism is no longer catastrophic.  Presentations are no longer asphyxiating.  Asking for help is no longer idealistic.  Thank god for that.

Some people might object to this sort of workplace egalitarianism.  “The boss deserves respect”, we retort.  And she does.  And so does everyone.  If we practice universal respect, we never stand accused of insubordination.  Respect is compatible with “managers are people too”.

We might also say that some graduates are overconfident and need the exact opposite advice (“hey junior, tone down that ego!”).  Yes, while arrogance stinks, it is not the mood in the room for most new starters.  Most graduates are naturally reserved and anxious.  Generalised advice should speak to that.  “Don’t be cocky” comes so obviously to most that it’s better left as a bespoke remedy.

“Managers are people too” is sage advice at the start of your career when you’re most prone to forget it.  Like most good advice, you won’t believe it until you see it in the rear view mirror, but keep this one in your toolkit and see what happens. 

Good luck in your new gig.

Hi! I’m a dispute resolution lawyer and the former CEO of Out for Australia, an Australian LGBTIQ+ student mentoring non-profit. Feel free to add me on LinkedIn with a message about who you are.

lukefurness.com

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