Sunday 20 January 2013

Most People Resign Bosses

I met a few colleagues from work in a relaxed social setting and the conversation came to an animated and anecdote ridden discussion on how a boss (from the Dutch word for Master – “Baas”) or reporting manager can have a very meaningful and positive impact on the person reporting to him or her. I then asked the question whether the inverse holds as well i.e. whether a boss can have a negative impact and be sufficiently damaging to raise an employee’s desire to leave and potential resignation. That led to a far more interesting debate!

So before you stop reading thinking that this is another disgruntled employee rant I (as a people manager myself) wanted to highlight that I have been involved in many conversations with employees who have stated that their boss was the primary reason for them to actively seek another role within the organisation or consider leaving the organisation and some actually willing to carry on in the role but hoping that the boss would ultimately move on!
Besides my own experience there is sizable practitioner oriented work in this area as well. One survey found that 3 of 4 employees reported that their boss was the most stressful aspect of their careers and 2/3rds stated that they would trade their boss in lieu of an increase. Let’s for one moment assume that the article is flawed and that the data does not depict the average organisation, nevertheless, such surveys do provide genuine directional guidance in understanding what is it that bad bosses do not do (and not only what they do to “alienate” employees”) that gets them the title of “bad” or “demanding”!  In another valuable piece of work on employee engagement (which is defined as a function of (1) relationship with immediate supervisor; (2) belief in senior leadership; and (3) pride in working for the company) the results showed that only a third of surveyed employees were fully engaged leaving two-thirds as partially engaged or fully disengaged! I would argue that these high levels of disengagement ultimately decrease employee productivity and increase an employee’s desire to leave.
It is important also to ensure that we realise that many employees cannot relate well to a demanding boss. Some people also label demanding bosses as a “bad” boss. For me a demanding boss is bad if the means by which he (or she) ensures their demands are met lead to resentment or disengagement. With regards to demanding bosses, they are not necessarily the problem unless they are truly “good” at creating resentment and disengagement. My own take is a demanding boss is fine as long as his employees also identify him as a fair person i.e. someone who is consistent in reward and punishment, which is not true of a “bad” boss. “Working for a high-performer boss can be the most exhilarating experience of your life or it can be the most exasperating.”
Ultimately a “bad” boss will be discovered in an organisation that has the means to identify and neutralise such bosses. I have found two very interesting issues with identifying and neutralising such bosses.
First, even if a majority of employees may give the boss the title of “bad” there will a very vocal and strong minority of sycophants that would always argue in favour of the bad boss. These are people who are mentally more mature/strong to handle the boss and have adapted or accepted (or have the same qualities of the boss) so they manage to survive and thrive. It is usually such individuals who give sufficient conflicting input on a boss to make it difficult for an organisation to take action or even identify a “bad” boss. The truth is sycophants make it difficult to curb or restrain “bad” bosses due to their efforts and presence.
Secondly, many “bad” bosses justify their “badness” behind an opaque corporate shroud and argue that they acted in the interest of the company and hence their behaviour is correct and rather than criticise them the employee (and organisation) should be grateful for their “badness”  .  Only a narcissist (someone in admiration of oneself) can justify this. I see parallels in this behaviour and the same behaviour that leads to ethical violations. I have found that individuals who get reprimanded for violating an organisation’s standards of business conduct typically argue that they did it for the betterment of the organisation or for a good cause or that their behaviour was justifiable as the outcome was justifiable. Interestingly, the basis for behaviour justification from an ethical point of view  also finds resonance in how managers justify their “badness”!
The trick in being judged a “bad” or “good” manager and to assess whether a boss is contributing to developing employee engagement has to do with how perceptive and alert the boss is to his or her style of functioning. An analogy to explain this is to ask - What does one think about constantly when dieting to lose weight? The answer is “food”. We become conscious of food when we are managing intake of it! In the same way, a manager has to be alert, perceptive and take cognisance of when and how they are taking actions that could “have the potential to easily alienate those on the receiving end. “ In closing, let me leave a simplistic list of interventions that a boss can use to minimise the degree of “badness” that their employee attributes to them:
  1. Be conscientious about micro-managing and controlling. Avoid setting direction from the top only. Try to take input from employees in validating the direction or strategy. This happens because the boss believes that “manager knows best” or “I know the bigger picture and therefore, only my directive is what matters”
  2. Ensure that you are not confusing loyalty as meaning a no questions asked attitude from the employee. Do not demand loyalty or reward loyalty. There is a thin line between loyalty and sycophancy
  3. Provide ongoing constructive feedback and encourage discussions on a constant basis. Do not spring surprises on a employee during a “big bang” performance and appraisal review leaving ZERO opportunity for a employee to undertake behaviour modification (as a response to constructive criticism) thus allowing for “mitigation of sentence”
  4. Show a genuine interest in the well being of the employee. Praise achievement disproportionately
  5. Where there is evidence that the employee is not aligned to your vision or direction then undertake a gap analysis of what is it that you said or did not say? What can you do better to improve alignment?
  6. Remember that the difference between a “demanding” boss and a “demeaning” boss is the intensity with which the boss handles people or give instructions or reprimands people for non-compliance or non-alignment. There is a difference between playing the ball and playing the person. Play the ball and the person will not take it personally
  7. Give instructions that you yourself would have no challenge in fulfilling or delivering on. I am amazed by the number of bosses who will have their subordinates work late hours or week-ends but themselves are nowhere to be found. Be willing to live and die by the same principles that you judge your employees on
  8. Acknowledge when you are wrong and be open about changing your mind if there is a reason to do so. Most “bad” bosses have earned a reputation of being stubborn upfront and then changing their minds later but not acknowledging the change of heart thereby losing goodwill in the process as they forged on in the wrong direction despite your employee’s or team’s misgivings
  9. Be deadline driven but also ensure that the employee understands the importance of the deadline and consequences for missing the same. This is not about the consequence to the individual but the consequence to the team as a whole!
If there is advice I can give to an employee trying to figure out how to handle a “bad” boss then I would ask for two things.

First, develop the ability to control your emotions when dealing with “bad” or demanding bosses. An ex-manager of mine was known for his mental strength in handling his manager and other domineering individuals in the organisation. Watching him handle (or deflect) was a great learning experience. Be strong.

Second, develop the ability to use data and logic in a precise and cohesive manner when dealing with such managers. Remove emotion from the equation and focus on analysis.
And if the above is difficult for you (the employee) to undertake or does not work then do consider moving on from your role (for your mental well-being and longevity in the corporate world). I have done it before so being totally honest here. But leave keeping your and your “bad” boss’s dignity intact. He or she is still in the same organisation and your paths may cross in the future (rather let your paths cross than swords cross in the future!).


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