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Who Bosses the Bosses?

September 15, 2009
by Katie Packard

Everyone has a story to tell about a negative experience with a bad boss. Sometimes it may seem that there are more bad bosses than there are good ones. Human resources expert Andrew O’Keeffe aims at illustrating how damaging poor managers can be to an organization in his new novel, The Boss.

O’Keeffe has worked in the human resources field for 25 years, including 10 years as a human resources executive with IBM. “I like the human dimension, people coming together and working together,” he shares.

Throughout his career, O’Keeffe has heard many stories of poor managers. He decided to weave the experiences together into one story. “I wanted to do something with this knowledge,” he says, and so he began writing a novel.

The Boss is about a marketing professional named Lauren who tries to do her job while working for a team of dysfunctional executives. O’Keeffe wrote the book to encourage employees to create a positive working environment for themselves, but he hopes managers will read the novel to learn how to become “the boss who gives energy to your people and yourself.

“I hope managers can read my book to see mistakes and to learn how to improve,” he continues. “It was written very much with bosses in mind. ‘Do I do some of the things Lauren’s bosses do?’ I hope managers realize the impact people have as a boss and how they might choose to do something differently.”

O’Keeffe opted to write a novel instead of a nonfiction book because “people very rarely have a neutral reaction about their boss. It’s almost always emotional.” He felt he could address better the ways people behave and react to poor bosses in a fictional format. “The main character lets people experience situations instead of offering a lecture or advice” as in a nonfiction book, he explains.

However, O’Keeffe believes his book can be used as a learning tool in the workplace. The novel includes discussion questions to stimulate conversation, and O’Keeffe hopes that the situations the protagonist experiences will help managers understand how their behavior impacts employees.

“People don’t realize the emotions involved in managing people,” he states. “Most managers are appointed to their position because they are technically competent, but a technically competent person is not necessarily good at dealing with people. Many managers don’t enjoy the being-in-charge-of-people aspect of their job.”

O’Keeffe suggests senior managers begin training employees before they are promoted to help them become more effective at managing people. He believes that in order to be a good manager, the individual should have “an interest in people, in setting out employees’ goals and holding people accountable, and in resolving conflicts within the team.”

He suggests that organizations can improve the quality of their managers by following five guidelines: design a doable job, hire well, give managers tools, invest in skill development and hold managers accountable.

O’Keeffe believes the most essential guideline is designing a doable job. Senior executives should have clear expectations for their managers. “As an organizational solution, the most important one is for senior executives to establish the culture of what they expect of their managers and how their managers are to behave,” he shares.