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An ounce of bad-boss prevention

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Last week’s column introduced Michelle McQuaid’s “Bad Boss Study,” which seems to show bad bosses in the United States outnumber good ones two to one, although given how few details of the study are available, the title might actually mean it’s a bad study about bosses.

It would have to be awfully bad, though, to completely invalidate the results. While the ratio might not be two to one, we can safely conclude there are a lot of bad bosses out there.

The question: What can executives do to prevent bad bosses in their organizations? It’s a question with two complementary answers. The first: Develop their organizational listening skills. The second: Don’t wait for bad.

Organizational Listening

Organizational listening is the art of Knowing What’s Going On Out There. This isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Many executives and middle managers rely, as a matter of habit, courtesy, and efficiency, on their chain of command. They all will, eventually, end up with bad bosses in their organizations, and they’ll never know.

That’s because (this really ought to be too obvious to require explanation), they’re relying on the bad managers to reveal themselves. That isn’t going to happen. Worse, if one bad manager has a second one further down in the chain, the first will conceal the second. Even those managers who aren’t bad personally will, if they rely on their chains of command, inadvertently conceal bad managers who are lower down in the hierarchy.

Early in their careers, most managers learn that they’re supposed to “respect the chain of command.” They take this to mean they should rely on it for all employee interactions. They take it wrong.

Respecting the chain of command means only assigning work through it … a practice that’s essential for maintaining a healthy organization. Executives and middle managers who fail to respect the chain of command in this way end up with overworked employees — and the better an employee is, the more overworked he or she will be. The best employees gain visibility because of how good they are. They’ll already be the go-to people for their direct manager; because they’re visible they’ll also be the go-to employees for the manager to whom their manager reports, and so on, and so on, and so on.

But assigning work has little to do with Knowing What’s Going On Out There. So establish, with everyone in management, that listening to everyone who has information to share is an important use of a business leader’s time and attention.

Starting with you, and starting with a redefinition of the old open door policy.

Not that an open door policy is a bad idea. It’s just that when an employee makes use of it, other employees, and their manager, can see them making use of it. All that’s needed is an employee’s manager asking, in a kidding sort of way, “Hey, I saw you talking with Jane. It wasn’t about me, I hope!” and it’s game over, because it takes a good poker player to avoid giving away the subject, and the contents, of the conversation.

So expand your open door policy to an open-door-or-meet-offsite-for-beverages policy. That will protect employees who have something to say and a concern about what will happen it their manager finds out they said it.

Don’t wait for bad

Bad is a bad word. Avoid it. Few bosses are simply “good” or “bad.”

At least, not at first. By the time a manager becomes a truly bad boss, their boss has missed a lot of salvage opportunities.

Every manager is better at some dimensions of management and leadership than others. None are so good that no further improvement anywhere is possible; few have so little aptitude for the sport that they can’t improve in some ways.

Your goal: Help all of your managers be better at leading and managing tomorrow than they were yesterday. You will, on occasion, have to demote or terminate the few who are hopeless, but that isn’t your goal. In a very real way it’s an admission of failure.

Set that tone with employees who take advantage of your new, expanded open door policy. If one says, “I report to a bad manager,” ask, “Where does she most need to improve?”

The answer will be more informative than just allowing the employee to vent. Even better, you’ll hear something you can do something about.

Comments (4)

  • Great column Bob. Far too few leaders have a clue how to intervene and develop good leaders. Bad leadership begets bad leadership, unfortunately, which can really undermine company value.

  • The (probable) fallacy in the survey is how they asked the question. If I phrase it in such a way as to (effectively) ask “Is there anything my boss is doing that I don’t like?”, a 66% failure rate is actually pretty good.

    There are certainly things my boss is doing that I don’t like – but I realize that he is doing them because he can’t fix a problem he knows he has and that is due to bad decisions made by his predecessor combined with an austere budget climate.

    It also gets back to the definition of what I like/want versus what is good for the organization – if my goal is to play golf and my bosses goal is to get me to run a project that does not involve playing golf; any time my boss doesn’t let me play golf is going to make him bad in my eyes. I can believe a 66% failure. The popularity of TGIF tells me that.

    A third factor is personality – some bosses will never work well with some employees – the approaches are diametrically opposed. A great boss can treat each employee in the way they understand – but only in one-on-one situations, a good boss will not be able to get through to a few. If that was the way the question was asked, I’m also surprised it’s as much as 66% – but non-zero I can believe.

    When management direction is given in meetings, the employees that “get it” the first time it is said will feel put-upon or stressed out by the time it is said for the 7th time – which is the typical number of times it takes to sell something.

  • Asking an employee how a boos could be better sounds like a wonderful idea. To this employee. I suspect to many bosses, that sounds less like gaining advice and more like capitulation.

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