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What can you do about a bad boss?

There are few things as destabilizing as a bad boss.  We are often defeated before we even begin to solve the problem by our lack of faith that there is much we can do to improve our lot. For many of us, confronting others is difficult no matter what the situation. When the other person has greater seniority, status, age, experience and power than you, it feels nearly impossible.  Quitting your job, waiting for your boss to quit, direct confrontation, or going over your boss to her superior all seem like bad options.

But many employees fail to take some basic steps that could make a bad situation better. Here are some suggestions for things you can do to improve your working relationship.

Focus on the work, not the person.

Often in our distress we begin to portray our bosses as inhuman. We use derogatory adjectives to describe them to ourselves and others. In our venting we focus almost exclusively on the negative aspects of their personality and character. Even though much of what we are feeling may be accurate, it would be a mistake to communicate with our boss in this way. It would likely serve to put them on the defensive, or worse yet, alienate or anger them. Remember, your goal is to improve your relationship with this person who is a daily influence on you. Elevating them to monster status in your own mind will make it even more difficult to approach them. Remind yourself that they are a person with family and friends, disappointments and suffering, just like anyone.

Find mutual goals.

In order to prepare yourself for solving the problem, begin by thinking through the mutual goals of your work together. What binds you to your boss is your common commitment to your job.

  1. What do you need in order to do your work excellently?
  2. In what ways are you not able to accomplish your best work because of your working relationship?
  3. In particular, what do you need from your boss in order to improve your contribution to the team goals? Is it more direction, less management, more lead-time, a different style of supervision?

Set up a time to talk with your boss.

Be proactive. Don’t wait until there is a big blow-up and a mess to clean up. Tell your boss you want to talk about how you can make the best contribution.

Prepare for the meeting by being clear about the results you want. What are the changes you are requesting? Are they reasonable?

When you meet with your boss, avoid “you” language. The point of your meeting is not to convince him that he is the world’s worst boss. You will not succeed. But by focusing on what you need to do your work well, you might get somewhere. Start by informing him of your motivation—to improve your work contribution. Describe what you need that you are currently not getting.  Take responsibility for your part in the problem and be willing to hear that your boss may perceive the situation differently.

Next step: bring in another senior manager.

You may have done a great job of being proactive and respectfully trying to address the problem directly with your boss. And it might not work.  There are people who get into leadership positions who are just plain toxic. But if you have to go the next step, you at least have demonstrated your maturity, respect, and problem-solving ability.  With that in your pocket, it would be reasonable to request a meeting with another senior manager. In the best case scenario, you would let your boss know of your intent, and even invite her to participate. A focus on the work problem, rather than the personality problem, is crucial at this point as well.

Worst-case scenario.

If you believe that you are victim of discrimination, abuse or harassment in the workplace, you are in a distinct category. In this case, you have rights that should be outlined in your human resources package. By all means, do not hesitate to protect yourself from the influence of a person who is violating your civil rights!

It is worth it!

We spend more hours with our work partners than many of our friends and family members. Though we don’t get to choose these relationships, they are critical to our well-being. Making the effort to improve our communication, resolve conflicts, and set good boundaries can make a difference to our well-being and job satisfaction.

CC Photo by publicenergy

The release of the film “Horrible Bosses” has spawned a stream of blogs about toxic bosses. Many of us have our own tales of woe, learning hard lessons about life through these challenging people. The spectrum of bad bosses ranges from psychopaths, who seem to populate the corporate world in higher rates than broader society, to bullies, narcissists, and the generally incompetent and unmotivated. Why is it that so many of us have had at least one experience of working for a horrible boss? Perhaps more importantly, why is it that these people seem to keep their jobs?

The Real Cost of a Bad Boss

The American Management Association notes that the real impact of bad bosses upon subordinates runs the gamut from suicide, behavioral problems and violence to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The costs associated with working for them are now well known—sick days, low performance, high turnover, increased workplace deviance, revenge seeking, hostility, lack of engagement, withholding of creative or innovative impulses and ideas. People tend not to respond to bad bosses with their best self. As a result, the organization as a whole also suffers. Poor management/leadership leads to a poor organizational culture and disempowered employees, all of which opens the door to the forces of entropy.

A poll of 1,000 U.S. adults in March 2007 by the Employment Law Alliance (ELA) discovered that “44% of American workers have worked for a supervisor or employer who they consider abusive.” Abusive behavior in this study includes sarcastic jokes (60%), public criticism of job performance (59%), “interrupting … in a rude manner” (58%), yelling or raising one’s voice (55%) and “ignoring you/co-worker as if you/he/she was invisible” (54%). More extreme behaviors are also common. The Workplace Bullying Institute e studies suggest that “35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand (37% in 2007, given the MOE, essentially equivalent); 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women; Women bullies target women in 80% of cases; Bullying is 4X more prevalent than illegal harassment (2007); The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment.”

Organizational Tolerance: Good for Bad Bosses

Numerous books and articles have discussed how to survive a bad boss or the origins of such bad behaviors. There is another issue that needs to be considered: Given the extremely high cost of retaining bad bosses paid by the employees themselves and the organization as a whole, why do organizations initially place, put up with—and even promote—bad bosses? Are their bosses aware that they are horrible bosses?

There is, of course, great diversity on this issue and it varies depending upon the industry, organization, and people involved. Having worked for a bad boss or two myself and having watched friends struggle with the issue, here is a different take that attempts to place accountability where it belongs, with the organizational leadership.

The issue is relatively simple. The fundamental flaw that leads to the placement of bad bosses has to do with a misguided understanding of human nature, human potential, and the necessary requirements for an organization to function optimally. Poor decisions made about the hiring and promotion of dysfunctional people beyond and outside their capacity, a poor review process, and a hesitancy to act on the situation when exposed are all contributing factors.

Without a doubt, people are very difficult to read. Assessing exactly what it takes to perform in a leadership/management capacity is likewise challenging. A common flaw found in many people is that they overestimate their ability to read people. I recall one conversation with a university president who was overly confident in his “instincts” for identifying the next generation of leadership. As we discussed his criteria, it became clear that he didn’t realize that his “instincts” and criteria identified hero types of narcissistic individuals. We really need more than instinct, the demonstration of high performance at a lower level, or misplaced confidence in someone’s ability to do the work to promote or hire into a new position.

Here are some of the recommendations we make when discussing important personnel decisions with senior leadership:

1. Reconsider your hiring, promotion and succession planning criteria.

A typical resume provides the very basic elements of a person’s life and history. Success at one level does not promise success at the next. Further training and education cannot make up for lack of capacity or human dysfunction. The belief that education and training or experience can make an individual competent in a particular area is the human nature flaw in human resource management. The elements of character, values and beliefs in addition to innate capacity matter a great deal. People are complex and we need complex measurements in order to ensure a good fit.

2. Help the newly promoted succeed.

Providing the education and training for people who have the capacity and character for a supervisory role is vital. An astonishing percentage of firms simply promote people into supervisory roles with no continuing education or training. Even if someone has the character and capacity, odds are that they will struggle to succeed and acquire competency in their new role.

3. Have regular performance evaluations that include input from both supervisor and direct reports.

A sad fact is that bad bosses often relate up very well, but they relate downwards poorly. A performance culture is anchored in transparency, trust and humility. It seeks the development of all and the full utilization of everyone’s capacity. Performance reviews, when done well and when they consist of more than just self-report, can get at the heart of the quality of the boss. In our work, we are always shocked when we discover the Board has not regularly assessed the CEO, president, or even VP’s, excepting of course some form of self-report and the performance of the organization. (Of course, this assumes that the board members are themselves are proficient and learned in the art of understanding and reading people and capable of performing this task well.)

Creating a culture of evaluation, transparency, measurement of capacity and optimization will not just empower good employees, it will weed out bad bosses and poor performers alike.

4. Don’t overlook the insights of followers.

Understand that underlings are not always the grumbling, complaining masses they are often portrayed to be. The too frequent fundamental assumption of senior leadership is that those who work for someone cannot be trusted to offer helpful evaluation. They are seen as not having the experience, training, and perspective of the demands of the more senior position and are inclined to personal slights, jealousy, general laziness and ambition. But those working directly under someone posses a unique position and perspective by which to view their leader that is unobtainable elsewhere. The view from below can amplify and modify the view from above.

5. Remember we’re all in this together.

Leaders need followers and followers need a leader who understands that their work cannot be accomplished without her people. This interdependence changes the work relationship. Trust, empowerment, delegation, etc., are all based upon a healthy relationship founded in mutual respect. We can help each other grow.

6. Senior management must take managing talent and culture seriously.

It is no longer enough just to manage by mission and numbers. Creativity, innovation, leadership and care for the human factor are an important part of management that the Kaizen and Six Sigma processes can’t get at. The senior leadership provides a model for how to be in the world and lays the foundation for the organizational culture. Tolerating dysfunctional people within their management team will reinforce a toxic culture that will have a negative impact in the long term. As Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is wont to say, do yourself a favor and “flee a toxic leader or toxic organization.” The more we learn about the real, physical impact of an abusive person, stress, or job outside of our capacity, the more we realize how wise is her advice.

7. Determine who matters and what matters.

It’s vital that senior leadership have answers to the questions “Who matters?” and “What matters?”

It’s dangerous to be driven by short-term success and not account for longer term loss. We tend to overlook bad behavior because the person produces results in the short term. But there are other ways of measuring the impact of the bad boss. Loss of productivity, poor discretionary effort and decreased talent, creativity, innovation, other aspects of human and intellectual capital reveal the high cost of tolerating bad bosses.

Furthermore, tolerating or ignoring a bad boss sends the message that one individual is more important than the whole. The price paid by many in the organization is overlooked in order to keep one person in her place. Is this really the message you want your leadership to communicate?

8. People are not too soft and sensitive today.

There is an inherent belief that the way to get people to work harder and produce more is by being gruff, harsh, tough, or abusive. The exact opposite is in fact the case. Motivating people in a healthy way increases productivity and employee satisfaction and contributes to an organizational culture to which people want to belong. Everyone wins.

9. Don’t be complacent. Don’t simply trust your instincts when it comes to choosing leadership.

The ever wise and business savvy Max De Pree writes in his classic book Leadership Is an Art, “Choosing leaders is the most vital and important matter corporations and institutions face.” If this is the case, then it’s crucial for everyone who has responsibility for personnel selection and promotion to become serious students of human nature. Take a closer look. Learn as much as you possibly can about people. Take advantage of the latest research, the accumulating body of knowledge on human potential and ways to draw it out, and on how systems function. Tap into the expertise of others if necessary.

Organizations are like a garden that needs the right amount of care, fertilizer, pruning, maintenance, and daily attention to make it beautiful. People are unique in many respects, and yet wisdom and science demonstrate that there are consistent elements that all of us need to do good, meaningful work. Quality supervision is one such element. If your organization is struggling, take a closer look at the type of supervision being provided.

In the long run, bad bosses are expensive. Individual employees working under them pay for them in terms of stress, discouragement, decreased creativity and performance. The organization that places, promotes or ignores them pays in terms of decreased productivity, a high turnover rate, diminished or even toxic organizational culture and a lack of respect for leadership that fails to deal properly and carefully with personnel issues. Stop paying for bad bosses and instead invest in making the best personnel decisions you possibly can.

In recent posts we have been talking about finding your sweet spot, and making career choices based on optimization of your capacity. Skip the first two paragraphs if you have already read these blogs.

If not, here’s a recap. A faulty view of human nature as a blank slate has led us to the erroneous view that given the right input, anyone can become anything. This view of human nature is challenged by findings in personality research that demonstrate that we as individuals each have unique traits that make us a better fit for some activities than others. Those jobs that match our capacity will energize us. Those that fall within our range are things that we can learn to do well, but drain us. Then there are those competencies that are outside of our range and though we might work hard at them, we’ll just never excel. Making career decisions based on matching your work to your sweet spot increases the likelihood that you’ll have a long, healthy, happy work life. A mismatch can lead to significant burnout and health problems.

Here is a simple example: We humans vary along a dimension of how much we like to focus on details versus the big picture. Some of us just love to be immersed in details! Others find them incredibly annoying but never tire of visionary thinking. Others are in between. If we are a big-picture personality type, spending lots of our time paying attention to details will drain us, even though we can do it if we must. Accounting would not be a good choice of profession for someone who is at the big-picture extreme end of this dimension. It might work for someone in the middle range, as long as they also got to do some broad stroke work, say management or planning. It could be just right for someone who is wired for detailed work. Knowing where you are on this dimension requires significant self-awareness. Judging simply by performance can be very misleading.

Will a promotion help or hinder Laura’s well-being?

Let’s imagine Laura, who falls on the attention-to-detail end of the spectrum. She has been a stellar accountant for the clients she services in a large accounting firm. She is also introverted and a perfectionist. As a result of these characteristics, she enjoys working long and hard hours in her office, getting the details of her clients’ portfolios exactly right. As a result of her excellent record she is offered a promotion to a position where she will supervise the work of a staff of six junior accountants. Should she take it? Typically, the answer would be yes. Whenever you are offered a promotion, you take it. More money, more status, no brainer.

But consider this: In her new position, Laura will no longer be well matched for her capacity. She will now be responsible for the work of six other people. She will have to spend a great deal of time interacting with others and being responsible for their work products. She will no longer have the time to ensure that everything is done perfectly. This supervisory role will increase her stress and drain her energy. Her performance as a supervisor will not be as personally rewarding, nor will she probably excel to the degree that she has done in her previous role.

Should she take it? Alternatively, should the firm find another way to reward her? How can they keep her engaged in the work she does so well? Perhaps, for example, she can be promoted to bigger accounts with more important clients, earning a raise in the process.

What promotion is right for you?

Finding our personal optimal competencies based on our intrinsic personalities is not as easy as it might seem. We easily become influenced by the cultural emphasis on performance and an unthinking attitude about promotion. As a result, we all want to climb the ladder. We are also sadly lacking in personal objectivity. If we have been doing well at our jobs, it is likely we’ll be promoted, even if the new position is a mismatch for our natural capacities.

How can you better uncover your personality type? In a future post, we’ll discuss the various personality assessments that are available. (We use a very good one.) But short of taking a personality assessment with a qualified consultant, you can begin to pay attention to how you feel about different tasks that are part of your daily work.

For example:

  1. Are you energized by working alone or with people?
  2. After meetings are you drained or re-charged?
  3. When its time for you to take on new responsibilities, think carefully about the specific tasks that will be required of you.
  4. Are these the things that make you “go”?

The answers to these reflections should be an important part of your decision-making process.

Value the well-being of yourself and others.

People are a precious resource. We are not blank slates that we can write on at will. Shouldn’t we take seriously people’s capacity for the work they do in order to preserve their contribution over decades of work engagement? If you are a manager, pay attention not only to your staff’s performance, but also note what they love to do. What stimulates their creative engagement? If your manager doesn’t cover this as part of your regular supervision meetings, think about introducing it yourself. This discussion should be part of a regular performance review.

All of us are faced with similar dilemmas, whether in our own career or for those that we manage. When your turn comes, will you think beyond the issues of past performance, promotion, money and status? Will you add your well-being and that of your staff to the equation? How will you decide?

Please write your thoughts below!

Do you optimize or develop your people?

I confess, I didn’t know the answer to that question three months ago. I didn’t even know it was a question. The distinction between optimization and development is slight but significant. It is changing how I think about people, careers, organizational life and the role of human resources.

Developing people has a very specific meaning in the West. This post-WWII view developed by behavioral psychologists now broadly shapes how we approach career development. It is based upon the blank slate understanding of human nature and has led to the belief that anyone can be shaped to be anything as long as we give them the right input. Most businesses, non-profits and Tiger Moms function with this view of people.

Because it is assumed that anyone can do most things, performance becomes a matter of hard work and dedication. And it is true that if we work at something long enough and hard enough, we can generally become somewhat proficient at it. So we hire those with the best qualifications, education, experience, and fit. Then we put them in a job and train them, offering continuing development throughout their career. High performers are promoted and developed, and expected to succeed.

The goal, of course, is the top of the ladder, the celestial C-suite, becoming a partner, etc. The stories we tell reinforce this view. We interview high performers about how they achieved this level of success, hoping that somehow we can find their secret and incorporate it to become that next great CEO in the pantheon of the gods.

Approaching career development in this way is a win-win situation for both the individual achiever and the organization, right? Not so fast. When combined with an overemphasis on achievement, such thinking can result in very negative consequences. More often than not, we find people promoted into positions they really don’t have the capacity for (the Peter Principle), and both those working under them and the organization itself suffers.

Furthermore, this misguided blank slate view of human nature can have severe implications for the individual (not to mention their families and others in their life). What if we are limited by a capacity that is in fact partially hardwired, as research now indicates? This would mean that making certain career choices or performing certain tasks or functions within an organization can affect our well-being more negatively than previously imagined. It goes beyond something “not being our strong suit.” The evidence suggests that not only will involvement in such ill-suited work lead to a lack of meaning and purpose in our lives, it can lead to depression, heart disease, and other maladies if performed over long periods of time. For people participating long-term in such work, a future life crisis is almost guaranteed.

Optimize me.

Research is confirming what we have all suspected: our brains and biochemistry play an important role in determining what energizes us the most. We need to be optimized, which means that we need to measure our innate capacity and develop our strengths. Doing so allows us to reach our maximum potential. Rather than viewing the corporation and our career as a ladder, with an ultimate goal of making it to the “top,” we might think of it more as a tree composed of many thick branches all necessary for the tree’s health. Each tree branch might be compared to the competencies necessary for organizational flourishing. The goal is to find our “sweet spot” on the right branch.

The organization becomes a place where people are employed in areas that match their personality, capacity and competencies. The goal of senior management and HR is to optimize the talent under their watch. Once you adopt this view, how you manage, delegate, form teams, think about leadership succession all change. It is a different universe, one that is healthier as well as productive/efficient. But it also demands a different model of management/leadership than the traditional model to which most of us are accustomed.

We cannot continue with the mistaken notion that we all have the capacity to be president or CEO, if given the chance. Nor is a career as a doctor or lawyer or banker necessarily for everyone, no matter how much our ambitious parents may dream that for us.

How to move forward?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Rethink human nature.

    We need to adopt a different model of human nature, one that accounts for difference and views diversity as a good thing.

  2. Understand capacity.

    We need to rethink capacity by incorporating a model that first assesses and measures capacity, and then optimizes the real capacity. This is more difficult than it seems.

  3. Optimize yourself.

    We need to take responsibility for our own optimization. Since it will be a long time before career counselors, HR departments, etc., adopt a different view of human nature, the responsibility remains with the individual.

Want to live a good life and engage in meaningful work?

Do your homework, seek quality advice from people with expertise, use assessment tools wisely, and enjoy exploring without fear of failure. To help you along, we will be offering some follow-up ideas in future blog posts that explore related topics in greater depth. We invite you to join us.

If you’re like many people, you’ve been told since childhood that if you just work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be. But is that true? Well, not really…. I know that is an extremely unpopular idea! It flies in the face of what we want to believe. But I think it’s time we faced reality. Why? Partly because it prevents us from finding something very important to our well-being. Instead of believing that we can be anything we want to, we should work harder at finding the thing that is the “sweet spot” for us.

But I’m good at it!

When I was 10 I wanted to be a ballerina. But it only took a couple of years of dance classes to learn that my feet, legs, and flexibility were never going to be what I needed to make it as a dancer. I was, however, really good at school so I went as long as possible and then became a professor so I would never have to leave. I was eventually recruited to do academic administration, and I was good at that too. I got lots of positive feedback and excellent performance reviews. I did it for 15 years until I got really burned out. I quit when I found myself getting too cranky about solving the same old problems and carrying out the institutional agenda.

What happened? I thought I was doing what was a good fit for me because I was good at it.

Find Your Sweet Spot

Here is how I think about it now. Everyone has a range of potential, but there are limits to it. Outside of the range are the things in which you just won’t excel, no matter how much you practice and work at it. For me, that was ballet. There is another category of things that we are good at, but they drain us. That was academic administration for me. Then there is the sweet spot. This is that fairly narrow range of work that we find fully engaging and energizing. It utilizes our potential and maximizes our competency.

I wish I had known what my sweet spot was and what work activities were going to drain rather than energize me. Sadly, it was only through trial and error that I figured it out. I didn’t even know to ask the question. Like most of us, I simply accepted the promotion. Recently I gave myself one of the assessments we use with clients to look at their workplace personality profile. There it was, clear as day. The one thing I should not have been was the thing I did for 15 years. The results predicted my burnout.

In future posts we’ll talk about the implications of this for human resources, career development, education. Because the sweet spot is something we should all find.