Why We Allow Bad Bosses

angry_boss-home_lifeRegardless of the name on the building, we all work for a person: the boss. Considerable research points to the importance of the relationship between employees and their supervisor for engagement, productivity, and longevity and most of us would agree that the quality and nature of the boss plays a critical role in operational success. Nevertheless, most organizations talk a great game about the importance of having good bosses, but assume little can be done to consistently address the gap between employee needs and supervisor capabilities.
This is a big mistake. A leader who cannot motivate and engage employees successfully will produce less than optimal results. So, why do we allow the “wrong” behaviors and attitudes to continue?

Our Experience – Most of us develop into leaders with few positive role models. When you think back on your career, how many bosses took the time to ensure that you would be successful at your job and you own development goals? Moreover, like almost any other profession, most bosses perform at an average level. In other words, exceptional role models occur very rarely. Human nature lends itself to assuming if something was good enough for me; it should be good enough for you. In a variety of other areas of our professional life, that would be considered striving for the least common denominator.

Paying Dues – In some organizations, having dealt with an incapable as well as inhuman boss is a “rite of passage” for advancement. In meeting with leaders, a common part of most personal timelines includes at least one instance of having to deal with some especially awful boss along the way. The heart of the story being that overcoming that terrible boss somehow made the leader better for having suffered and survived. The most common conclusion being: “that experience really showed me the leader I wanted to be.” Although a variety of positive and negative experiences play an important role in defining who we are, it may not be fair to conclude that everything that happens is always for the best.

Excellence is Hard – The last reason combines elements of individual as well as organizational change. Change is hard at any level, especially if the bad boss produces some positive results. We talk about individual leadership styles and methods of interaction, but neither focuses on the key element of what we want from people as leaders: to help others produce the best possible outcome. A leader’s individual approach, behaviors, and actions need to align with the group that he or she leads, if he or she wants to maximize success. In the absence of that alignment, one is hammering a screw into a board. It will work eventually, but not near as efficiently and effectively as a screwdriver. If one only knows how to use a hammer, at what point is it worth learning how to use a screwdriver? The decision to learn the new skills requires a commitment and investment on the part of the individual as well as the organization

Should That Manager Stay or Go?

Figure 1: Results of Leadership Failure

Standup comics, newspaper cartoons, and water cooler jokes use the woes of a bad boss as material on a regular basis.  An incompetent supervisor affects an organization in a number of ways. A previous posting summarized the impact that poor management has on an organization (see Figure 1).  The most noted issues pertain to failure to reach business goals, poor allocation and utilization of resources, and low morale.  The next cluster pertains to dissatisfaction of customers or even a loss of business.  Finally, the third cluster contains reduced productivity and high employee turnover.   What makes the findings even more shocking is that the lowest selected option, employee turnover still occurs in almost 50 percent of respondents.  Put simply, an incompetent manager works against his or her organization in a multitude of ways even if he or she means well.

So, what is the best way to deal with an incompetent manager?

Identify issues as soon as possible

The sooner you know what you have an incompetent manager the easier it will be to develop a plan of action.  Start by looking for the symptoms of an incompetent manager:

  • possesses an inability to make decisions;
  • fails to complete assignments;
  • fails to grasp how to complete regular management tasks;
  • neglects to communicate effectively with direct reports;
  • reduces employee engagement and workplace satisfaction;
  • fails to plan in advance for future activities and requirements;
  • works long hours with few real outcomes;
  • encourages conflict among staff.

If these behaviors reappear periodically, then you probably have an issue with one of your managers.

Analyze the situation and act

Successful organizations weigh the available options before deciding how to respond to the incompetent manager.  In most situations, an organization enjoys two real options: rehabilitate or remove the manager.  Neither solution affords an easy path.  If an organization decides to rehabilitate, then it needs a specific corrective action plan, method of monitoring, and sufficient higher-level staff time.  This diversion of resources toward the failing manager removes staff from productive activities, increases organizational and individual stress, and holds no guarantee of success.  Moreover, a 2010 HCS survey found that the success rate of rehabilitation falls below 22 percent.  Alternatively, removal of the manager forces the organization to search, recruit, and hire a new manager.  Management searches cost large sums when accounting for the search as well as lost productivity.  Depending on the industry, the cost averages between $35,000 and $75,000.  To make matters worse, the new candidate may be no better. Regardless of the chosen course, an organization needs to commit to one or the other.

Make Leadership Important

Although making a decision addresses a single situation, most organizations have challenges with more than one manager.  The real key to dealing with this issue starts with committing to identifying highly capable managers, utilizing effective screening tools, rewarding managers consummate with their contribution, supporting managers during hard decision, developing internal candidates as well as managers, and reinforcing the standards set by the organization.  Being proactive not only increases the chance of organizational success, but reduces the need to identify and act on poor managers.

Do You Have a Bossy Boss?

Sometimes our face says it all.  I recently interviewed a group of employees about their organization and its leadership.  Every time I asked about one of the managers, the interviewee’s face twisted like I had given them something sour to eat.  Literally, six different people all looked like they had eaten the worst tasting thing in the world and were compelled to hold it in their mouth.  When I asked about the manager that caused this reaction, the flood gates opened.  The list of overbearing, demeaning, and almost cruel actions seemed endless.  Each employee described the work environment the same way: tense and miserable.

When I asked if the manager knew that he created that type of environment, the response was the same: we have not told him.  Moreover, most agreed that bearing the misery was a much better option than letting him know.  The reasons varied for why no one let him know: fear of interacting with him in general, concern with retaliation, and pronounced disengagement from the team.

Although most of us would assume that the greatest threat from a manager like this is that people will leave.  While this is a very realistic outcome, the lack of desire for interaction may be just as damaging.  If an employee does not want to interact with a manager, then critical communication does not occur.  Specifically, issues are not dealt with, plans developed, or ideas exchanged that might significantly improve the operations of the work unit.  Another impeding factor is that no matter how positive other facets of the job may be, the actions taken by the boss will overshadow anything else.  Most of us would be very happy if had work that is interesting, assignments that match our skills, positive interactions with coworkers, and positive work results.  However, the attitude and actions of an overbearing boss can overshadow all of these positives.

What are some of the signs that someone that works for you might be overbearing?

  • Does the manager feel that he or she always knows best?
  • Does the manager feel that employees cannot be trusted to do their own work without guidance and supervision?
  • Is the manager impatient with his or her direct reports?
  • Is there a lot of conflict in the manager’s team?
  • Does the manager feel that conflict is good for people and should be encouraged?
  • Does the manager have a lot of arguments with employees or peers?
  • Does the manager refuse to consider employee feedback when making decisions?
  • Does the manager place the completion of the task above efficiency, customer service, and employee satisfaction?
  • Is the manager closed to new ideas and ways of doing things because he or she knows best?
  • Does the manager focus on the team’s shortcomings in communication?

If you have a manager that more than 75 percent of the above questions match his or her behavior, then it is likely the manager may be very successful personally at completing work, but a poor leader of others.  This “get things done” manager is good in the short term, but is not the best for the long term health of your organization.