Syndrome of the Straw Boss. Anyone who feels helpless and ineffectual in acquiring and delivering rewards to their workers is acting out the ‘straw boss syndrome’. Most of us have experienced this syndrome first hand. The story usually sounds like this: “she’s the big boss, I’m just a supervisor. I can’t do anything without her approval, and she doesn’t approve of much”.
The term Straw Boss came from a farming reality. You see, hay is dried grass used as feed for horses and cattle (it is what you primarily plant, cultivate and harvest and it is of the greatest value. Straw, on the other hand, is a by-product of hay. It comes from the stalks of wheat or other grains left over after harvesting the good parts, and is used primarily for livestock bedding. So, a “straw boss” is not the “big boss” of any organization. A straw boss is more like an assistant or subordinate boss, usually on the level of the foreman of a work crew. So the term straw boss has become a metaphor for any low-level supervisor. And since straw bosses rarely wield any real power aside from the ability to make those under them miserable, “straw boss” today is often a synonym for a petty and vindictive superior.
But this is not the way that it has to be. If you are a first line supervisor, you are in the perfect position to advocate for you employees. The message I have for you is quite simple, you may wear a straw hat at work, but you must feed HAY to your subordinates. The primary effort required to gain access to this Hay is advocacy. You are the one that works most closely with these men and women (or children), YOU are the one that knows them as individuals and knows what rewards have high valence to them. They can not advocate for themselves, therefore, YOU must be their advocate.
Let’s dispel the myth that we are bound by the rigorous rules of the organization. First of all, most organizations do have “rules”. Rules are generally those directives that, if violated, prescribe punishment. Rules are generally written and enforced for behaviors having to do with things such as due dates, property ownership or legal mandates. But the vast majority of the directives of an organization are policies. Policies are “rules of prudence” intended to influence decisions. Rules are not made to be broken, but policies are not made to be strictly adhered to.
Policies are written as “guidance”. In my experience, when I have gone to a superior with a request to reward someone in a way that is unusual (is outside of the governing policies of the organization), it was the strength of my advocacy, the soundness of my justification and the creativity of my solution that was important. It is your job to make the case for your people. You are their advocate!
I’m reminded of a PBS program I watched many years ago. I remember the story well because I do not think that I have ever seen a better illustration of creative problem solving. This program was a documentary about a primitive Aborigines tribe. The tribe, located in the remote and seasonally dry climate of Australia, was in dire need of a fresh water supply. During the dry season many waterholes and creeks dry up completely, grasslands turn brown and water supplies disappear. When this season occurred, the Aborigines people did not know how to find the remaining water sources that their very lives depended upon. Though they did not know were to find these scarce water supplies, the local monkey population, who possessed a much keener sense of smell, appeared quite hydrated. But, in spite of their hunting and tracking prowess, the Aborigines people could not follow the monkeys to these sources of water. It seemed that the monkeys knew the value of this scarce resource and were extremely careful to avoid detection when they returned to their ‘secret’ watering stations.
These Aborigines hunters had a creative solution to a difficult problem. I watched the TV in amazement as I witnessed this primitive peoples’ solution. Though they did not know where the water supplies were, they did know a great deal about the nature of these monkeys. What they new most of these monkeys was that they were ostensibly curious and inordinately stubborn. Capitalizing on what they new, they devised a plan to use these monkeys to lead them to water.
The process began with locating a mound of dirt in an open area (highly visible to the monkeys living in the surrounding trees). One hunter proceeded to use a long stick to bore a narrow hole in one side of the mound. Once this was complete, he reached into a small sack tied to his tunic and removed a ‘secret’ item that he placed in the entryway to the hole and, careful not to let the inquisitive monkeys see what it was that he was hiding, used the stick to slide a small smooth rock down the shaft of the hole. Once the stone was in place, the hole was covered with brush and the tribesman left the location until later that evening.
Once the monkey felt sure that he was not being watched, he ran directly to the site of the hole, removed the brush as if it were a present on Christmas morning, and plunged his slender hand into the whole to retrieve the valuable prize. Unfortunately for him, while the whole was big enough to slide a single hand into the narrow passage, grasping the stone at the end of the channel formed a monkey-fist that was too big to extract from the whole. The only way to remove his hand was to let go of the ‘prize’. Without exception, these monkeys struggled with the removal of this stone for hours until the Aborigines men returned to capture it. The monkey was then tied to a tree with nothing to eat or drink except a block of salt (which was beyond his ability to resist licking). By morning, the captured monkey was so thirsty that, when released from his constraint, he ran direct to the closest watering source. Tracking the monkey in this thirst-ridden condition was a simple matter for the hunters and the water source was quickly found.
The moral of this story is; if a primitive Aborigines hunter can find a way to get a monkey to lead him to water, even a straw boss can find a way to get her employees’ rewards with high valence. It is a matter of the 1) strength of one’s advocacy, 2) soundness of one’s justification and the 3) creativity of a solution. Good bosses are good advocates! They are creative, persistent, persuasive and passionate about rewarding their employees in ways that have great impact.
In March of 2001 my KPMG partner agreed to a significant pay raise shortly after our semi-annual review, but the HR department denied me part of the increase because it was more than policy allowed. Rather than play the role of a straw boss, my partner found a creative way around this restriction. In order to get my entire pay increase, he agreed to pay for my lodging, cable, cell phone and food expenses when I moved to my next assignment in Atlanta (out of an expense budget, rather than the salary budget). It was his creative solution, his intense desire to see that I was rewarded in the way that would motivate me, that facilitated my commitment to his team and his leadership.
In my own experiences as a manager I have found ways to provide rewards that were of high value to my men. In part this is because the rewards that I secured for them were ‘things’ that they most desired, but in large part the value of my rewards was high because these employees saw that I advocated for them and that I used any and all creative means to see that they were rewarded in ways that they valued. Valence is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it is essential to motivation. Don’t be bound by policies that were never designed to limit your ability to provide your people with the motivational groundwork for ASPIRE. They were never intended for this.