Bullish: On Managing Slackers When You Have No Power (And/Or Being A Solitary Unicorn)

I’m a 21-year old from Europe, with no real qualifications or job experiences. I’m taking evening classes now, trying to get my high-school degree after all, apply to university (applied mathematics seems interesting, so does artificial intelligence) and see where it goes from there. I’m a decent writer, but a degree in creative writing, language or journalism (like my friends and acquaintances expect from me) won’t land me a career. A career as science-journalist actually may be worth pursuing. Thinking about my future-self seems important.

The one job I do have has to do with writing, it’s as a volunteer at the local radio-station. We’re all friends there, before the radio even started. It’s a small town where the same people are seen everywhere, especially when it comes to those who volunteer. I’m working, mostly from home, as an editor. I make sure the news gets found and gets published on the website (or Facebook).

Since last April, I’m the managing editor. One woman works above me. There are two people in my small team that I have to manage. Everyone works as a volunteer.

The problem is that the guy I am managing is a good friend of mine. Yet, his writing sucks. It keeps getting worse, he seems lazy and uninterested, unless he gets to go to events to make photos. Even then, it takes him a week to sort those photos – they’re outdated by then. I’ve tried to tell him nicely that it’s really annoying that he keeps making basic mistakes in spelling and forgetting deadlines, but he seems to avoid giving any real answers. We need all the editors we have – otherwise, this may just turn into a full-time job for me and the chief editor. I can’t say, “Well, email me your articles, I’ll check them and then post them.” I’ve done that before and it’s time-consuming.

I feel like I have no authority over him. I may be younger, with less experience, but I know I’m a better writer than he is.

How should I deal with this? How can I ever manage a small team, learn how to delegate tasks and figure out a way to assert some authority based on skills, not age or knowledge, without ruining friendships?

Congratulations on going back to school, and I’m glad you’re thinking about more quantitative fields. (See last week’s, Bullish: High-Paying, Women-Friendly Tech Jobs Are Out There, Even if You Majored in Art.)

There are really just too many smart, hardworking women trying to do freelance writing, journalism, media, etc. Even if you are the best of all those women, the sheer volume of competition — and the presence of so many people willing to work free or cheap — drives down wages. The starting salary of any kind of engineer is typically more than most media jobs will ever pay. And personally, the quantitative side of my various professions really subsidizes the other things I want to do: there would be no Bullish if other people weren’t paying me to teach and write about math.

Now to your question. In a volunteer job, you don’t really have a lot of power — you can’t really promote or fire the guy, right? But even if you were all being paid, it is TOTALLY likely and normal that you would be asked to manage someone that you don’t have the ability to promote or fire. So you (often) can’t manage via a system of threats and rewards.

The obvious solution is that you should edit the articles, but you said that’s too time-consuming for a volunteer position. I can’t see a way that this guy’s writing is going to improve on its own. So, you could just accept his bad writing. I mean, his spelling might be terrible, but is he conveying useful information or being entertaining? If my doctor’s office had a misspelled blog, I’d find that unprofessional, but if the local animal shelter had volunteers posting bulletins in all-caps or all-lowercase or pink cursive font, that wouldn’t bother me too much. Do the posts from different writers and editors have bylines? If it’s clear which of the posts are Dave’s, then Dave’s writing doesn’t really reflect on anyone but him. Especially for an organization staffed by volunteers.

If Dave is blowing through deadlines, and talking to him hasn’t helped, I think your only recourse is to simply not publish anything that comes in too late. “These photos are from last week — we’re going to have to pass on these.” Or, “This post is okay, but we needed it last week. We already have something similar this week, so I’m going to hold this until later.”

If you want to escalate it, I’d suggest bringing up these issues (the station is publishing articles full of mistakes, and the photo sets are going up too late) either with your boss, or at a general meeting (after running it by your boss). It’s likely that someone else will suggest that Dave should do what you say, or should adhere to some kind of external schedule.

Or, it might be the case that you just have to accept that volunteers are only going to volunteer as much as they want. Unless you are getting a lot of applications from people who want to replace Dave, you may have to accept that Dave is giving as much as he cares to give.

Finally, you ask how you can manage someone while maintaining a friendship. I don’t think you can. Unless the friendship started off hierarchically — a friendship that is really more of a mentoring relationship, or between people with a large age gap — you really can’t be friends while one person is taking orders from the other. You can be “friendly.” But not friends.

In the workplace, it’s pretty common that someone who was good friends with her coworkers would stop hanging out in the same way when she gets promoted.

Being the boss can be lonely. The boss can take someone out to lunch. The boss can suggest that everybody go out for drinks after work. But, at these outings, the boss doesn’t bitch about the company or talk about her personal life the way she might have done as an employee. The boss is still on the job. She’s building relationships and trying to get to know the people she’s managing. But that’s not the same as being friends.

Once a friend becomes the manager, the dynamic changes. Even if you, the boss, want to keep hanging out with your former peers, it isn’t the same once there’s a power dynamic. Even if it feels the same to you — you haven’t changed! you act the same! — it feels totally different to everybody else now that they’re at the bar after work with their boss. Going to the bar with your boss means you’re still at work.

If I were you, I’d focus on your studies, and on getting what you want out of this volunteer gig. Do you want to list this on your resume as a management role? Do you want to build a portfolio of your own writing? Do these things relate to your future career in math or science? Important questions.

This experience with Dave might also provide a window into another important question — do you want to end up in a career where you manage others? In many large organizations, management — rather than creating things yourself — is the path to advancement. Even if you love, say, programming, at some point, the only way to keep moving up is to sit at a desk and tell other people how and what to program.

This is a sort of fucked-up aspect of capitalism. Good job making stuff! Now that you’re so successful at making stuff, you’re too good to actually make things, so sit over here and fill out reports and attend meetings full-time! Now you are a success!

If you’re not interested in managing people, you can sacrifice career advancement and stay in a mid-level position, you can go freelance, or you can be an entrepreneur. Honestly, I think these kinds of lifestyle choices are often more important than exactly what kind of work you do for a career. Rather than asking kids what they want to do when they grow up, maybe we should ask them questions like, “Do you want to work by yourself on something until it’s done?” and “Are you willing to fight with idiots every day to get things done, if the rewards are high enough?”

Of course the difference between making and managing isn’t always so black and white — certainly, you can be a research scientist who is the head of a team, and now you’re providing value and also managing. Et cetera. So much like how artists must learn to market themselves even if they hate marketing, a scientist might greatly benefit from sucking it up and becoming more competent at managing. You can focus on your strengths in life, but you can’t avoid weaknesses entirely — you usually want to shore them up to at least a minimal level of competence.

Fortunately, you are still in school! So a class or two in management might be a good choice for your future. Or not.

You might enjoy Bullish: How to Delegate, And Why It’s Important Even If You Just Make Coffee. Or, if you don’t enjoy that, please see Bullish: Teamwork Is Overrated (How To Be A Lone Unicorn).

Good luck!

First published on The Gloss.

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