How I Became a More Aloof Boss

The Office

Watching the TV show, “The Office”, I used to think the boss, Michael, played by Steve Carrell was so socially awkward who said totally inappropriate things in the office.  All his staff could see so clearly that he was trying to be cool and well-liked that he lost their respect.

Then, one day I became a “Michael.” After some time, I realized that I was also making the same mistakes that he was.  I wanted to be a stern boss but found myself yielding to a more accomodative “Michael” boss.  Though I laid ground rules for behavior, I eventually bended some rules.  For instance, early on I said I would not pay advances to workers.  Then after a couple of months, one of the ladies said she needed an advance to pay for her child’s school fees.  I complied but asked her to keep it quiet.  Of course, she did not.  Not long after, another person asked for money for to advance her own education. Recently, I also paid Mutala, my-driver-turned-writer, an advance for his apartment.  I took it out of his salary and eventually it was paid off.

It used to be that work started at 8:30am but I provided a grace period of 30 minutes.  Predictably, the staff got it into their heads that work started at 9:00am.  And they would arrive later and later.  Finally, I had made it very clear that if they were late — even 9:01am — that I would dock 5 cedis from their pay for every incidence.  Sure enough, the staff got discipline.

After a while, I resented how thankless being a boss can be.  Kindness is not respected; only stern carrot-and-stick rules are understood.  I pay these people to work but, often times, they just try to play me for a fool.  For instance, I recently gave Mutala an assignment to write a couple of articles.  I was very clear about what I wanted.  He told me he had done much of the ground work leading up to writing.  I thought, Great, then you should finish those pieces in no time.  Instead after a week he wrote an article for something I didn’t ask for and the two pieces I asked for never came.  I only got excuses for why they weren’t completed.  Now he’s telling me he needs money but I can only ask, “Where’s my articles?”

Similarly, a friend of mine runs a much larger business of, at least, twenty people said that their pay posted perhaps a day later than scheduled.  She immediately heard grumblings.  We all agreed that if they recognized how hard things are in Ghana now — where some people haven’t paid for months — that they should give her the benefit of the doubt and be patient.

As a boss, I hope we could all be one big, happy family.  That’s why Michael talks too much with his employees.  Something like those ridiculous photos of Google’s offices where programmers are playing ping pong and chilling at the cafeteria.   I’m not as rich as Google, but I do hope that my staff was learning the meaning of “office work” and hopefully were gaining computer skills like using Excel, typing, and writing emails.


Massage chairs for employees

Googe's office

Instead, I often felt that when you encouraged someone to gain these skills on the job, they didn’t appreciate it and seemed to go out of their way not to learn anything.  The only way they will learn any of these skills is for them to pay 300 cedis of their hard earned savings to get a certificate from a trade school.  Ghanaians love their certificates!

“Ghanaians will squeeze you like an orange until there’s just the rind and peel,” is how one friend described Ghanaians’ relationships with their bosses.  Now I can say that a handful of my employees have refused to return company items, e.g. a tablet, a camera, and a voice recorder.  Short of calling the police, there’s very little I can do.  After paying everyone between 500 and 700 cedis per month and on time, I feel cheated.  (National Service for fresh college grads used to pay 210 cedis per month.)  Mutala has forgotten the definition of a working relationship — you do something and I pay you for it.  He is pleading for money because of X, Y, Z.

The only good relationships I have with my employees is from those who left on their own volition.  One quit because she had to take care of her father; another quit because he went to play professional football in Turkey; another left because she was going back to school.

I feel half of my employees didn’t understand that if you leave on good terms, then when I have more work to do or if I hear a friend needs someone, then I will either re-hire you or recommend you, respectively.  They look at our relationship as a “one-period game” rather than a “multi-period game” where reputation matters.

I’ve learned that it’s lonely at “the top.”  There’s no point in trying to be like Michael.  Most employees are trying to extract as much from you with as little work; you are trying to get as much production for decent pay.  A good distance should exist between bosses and their staff.


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