Who’s The Boss?

The entire trajectory of a traditional career is structured so that you climb a ladder. You start at the bottom, putting in long nights, pushing paper, answering emails, keeping an eye on your phone and its ever-constant threat of something that requires response. You are quick, you are sharp, you are on top of it. You leave bits and pieces of yourself in every job, understanding that the great sacrifice you make will someday be worth it for the corner office, the door that closes, the lunches taken free of guilt. Someday, you will be in charge.

Bosses have meetings. They make phone calls. They walk from one end of the office carrying a Macbook in the crook of an arm like a handbag. They slip into the empty seat next to you and ask you questions that take you out of your day-to-day, with a cocked head and an empathetic expression. If they’re good at their job, you think they’re your friend. That’s okay, because sometimes they are. But most of the time, they’re your boss.

The idea of Being In Charge has always appealed to me, because power is elusive and slippery and something that I admire and want for myself. I’m the oldest of four girls; telling people what to do and how they should do it is as natural as breathing. Being in charge feels good. It means someone else trusts you to do something well. At work, when praise for general competency and the occasional shining moment of professional transcendence is dashed off as postscripts in emails and treated as an afterthought, being in charge means that someone has recognized you for whatever elusive quality you might have that would make a good leader or at least one that will do the job without complaint. Trust and mutual respect is essential in every relationship; when someone above you recognizes something and taps you for the next step, the gears click and the machine runs a little more smoothly. You are in charge. They trust you. Don’t fuck it up.

I have only been in charge at work for one month. It is temporary, and there is an end in sight. My boss stepped down and I was picked to lead in the interim. It’s an honor, sure, but one that comes without much glory.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen. Both my duties and my salary are the same. I still do my work, eat my lunch and go home. But, now I care more. Being content to let someone else deal with the minituae was fine in the past, but now, when a problem arises or a question needs answering, I’m empowered to answer the questions myself, to find a solution to the problem, to troubleshoot and resolve it without throwing my hands up and sending a pointed Gchat to someone else to just fix it already. It feels like a lot, but really, in the scheme of things, it’s very little.

Maybe being a good boss is a confidence thing. In order for any human being to tell another what to do with verve requires a particular kind of emotional intelligence that many people lack. For someone to listen to you, you must do it with tact. Wrap the request in a compliment. Stroke the ego. These kinds of interactions are the precise reason I despise the song and dance of dating. If something needs to be done, what better way to get results than to ask for it directly?

Sugarcoating feels insincere and lays your real motive bare. It’s better to ask for what you need directly than to dance around the subject endlessly, engaging in the kind of wily politesse possessed by those who know which fork to use first and whether the knife goes on the right or the left side of the plate. This is an effective strategy for negotiating rates for work, but less so for managing people.

As far as I know, there is no Boss School. A school of sardines swimming through the ocean has better business acumen than I do, and probably better management skills. It’s fine only because I know that an end is eventually coming, but the expiration date on my time in charge makes it harder for me to do what I think is right. Am I allowed to make any changes? Is my job to simply keep things running? Will I be rewarded with a cigar and a pat on the head, or at least an acknowledgement if I make something better? There’s no handbook for being the boss because the beauty of being in charge is that you make your own rules. In theory, this is wonderful, but in practice, it is absolutely terrifying.

No one tells you how to do this. Impostor syndrome, tricky and insidious and mostly kept at bay, rushes in to fill the cracks in my thinking like poison. Confidence in yourself — that you’re doing a good job — is shaken, daily. To tell other people that yes, you’d really appreciate it if they showed up a teensy bit earlier for work takes a five-minute internal pep talk and a walk around the block. The simplest request is no longer an innocent question, but a nag, sharp and pointed, stuck into soft flesh. I’m sure there’s a way to ask somebody to do something without feeling like a shrieking harpy. I just haven’t learned it yet. I trust that with time, I will.

Megan Reynolds is an associate editor at The Frisky. She lives in New York.

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