Commentary: How to be a first-rate subordinate at work

Commentary: How to be a first-rate subordinate at work

Management books focus on great leaders. What about the rest of us? One observer at the Financial Times has two pieces of advice.

boss subordinate discussing work cafe office
A woman engaged in a discussion in a cafe. (Photo: Pixabay)

LONDON: In our corner of the Financial Times office, the desks, floors and tables are piled high with management books.

Books about managing better and building engaged teams. Books about making decisions at the right time of day or with less effort. With more effectiveness. And with passion and purpose.

The number of shiny leadership styles on offer is, frankly, exhausting.

Management is on my mind because I recently returned, in a small way, to being a boss after many years as a team member. I have been flicking through these books looking for advice - but what has struck me instead is that none of the experts offers tips on how to be a great subordinate.

Many of us, myself included, are subordinate and manager at the same time. So this omission seems odd.

If it is worth defining what we expect from great team leaders and managers, why is it not worth pinning down everyone else’s role? A bit of self-reflection never goes amiss, wherever we may sit in the corporate hierarchy.


In the absence of professional guidance, and after decades of empirical evidence-gathering in subordinate roles, I have come up with two pieces of advice.

First, and most important, is that pure subordinates, with no extra responsibilities, have the privilege of selfishness - and should use it consciously and wisely.

While a manager feels responsible for the team, and is often freighted with the stress of managing upwards as well as down, pure subordinates do not need to bother with all that. It is extremely liberating.

Some of my most talented and fulfilled colleagues have been people who keep a part of themselves tucked away from work. Some write books. Some have side-hustles. One volunteers for a charity.

For some years I worked three days a week - not the way to advance, but it allowed time to be a charity trustee, spend afternoons with my children and be involved with the school parents’ association.

For many people, being focused on the job you are good at is often far more rewarding than being promoted into management, which may lie far from one’s comfort zone and ability.

Great subordinates may recognise this better than their managers. So often in corporate life, the focus is on “moving on” and “career development”. Not everyone wants or needs it.

At the selfish extremes, we have all worked with the clock watcher, the jobsworth, and that person who is always “ill” before and after public holiday weekends. They will never change.

For most of us, though, there is a balance to be struck: How far do we feel responsible for the success of our team and how far should we focus on our own needs?

Sometimes those things are in conflict. We may instinctively want to support peers by helping with a heavy workload or covering for people who are ill.

The tricky bit comes when those stressful situations are symptomatic of bad management. It can be miserable and confusing to be at the bottom of the team pile.


The second key to being an effective subordinate is rooted in our relationship with managers. Is the success of that relationship in any way our responsibility? 

When I asked non-managers about this, some were absolutely adamant that responsibility flows entirely from the top down. They tell us what to do and we do it. Our productivity and well-being is their responsibility.

I do not agree. Subordinates - especially those of us who manage both up and down - have a part to play in making relationships work, although it was news to me to hear that a common managerial fantasy is that of team members telling the boss how great he or she is.

Surely most people never dream of praising their boss? (This is, quite possibly, where I have been going wrong. I have been called “insubordinate” plenty of times.)


But brown-nosing is not what managers need. They need honesty. A good subordinate, one wise person told me, is engaged with their work, with the team and with the wider aims of the company - but is not afraid to tell the boss what is really going on in the ranks. Even when that is bad.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but this is surely the right aspiration. We subordinates just have to be careful not to frame it as a problem. Managers really, really hate problems.

I hope my new managerial career goes better than my first attempt, some 20 years ago.

I was a young journalist promoted to run a newsdesk on (another) paper. On day one, my most experienced reporter offered a statement of intent:

No offence, but I am not going to take any notice of what you say. I am not taking orders from someone younger than me.

And that is exactly what happened.

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Source: Financial Times/sl