Even a Viper Boss Can Change for the Better

By listening to employees and evaluating performance honestly, HR professionals can reveal a manager’s true nature.

By Bill Leonard Aug 1, 2012
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August CoverStories about bad bosses grab your attention. An Internet search for "bad bosses" turns up several websites dedicated to sharing stories about bad bosses, like www.reallybadboss.com and www.badbossology .com. Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, holds a bad boss contest and posts the winners online every year. Stories posted about the bad bosses draw dozens of comments.

A similar online search doesn't turn up any websites dedicated to celebrating good bosses.

Our apparent fixation on bad bosses could reflect the part of human nature that dwells on and complains about the negative. Many psychologists will tell you that negative experiences usually evoke strong emotional responses.

"People don't quit their jobs because of the organization," says David Grossman, founder and chief executive officer of Chicago-based consulting firm The Grossman Group. "People leave because of their bosses."

According to Grossman and other management experts, an increasing number of business leadersare realizing that bad bosses are toxic to their organizations. The costs of replacing lost talent due to high turnover are well-known to most HR professionals.

Once you add in other costs associated with bad bosses, such as lower productivity, more absenteeism and higher medical costs due to workers' stress, it's clear bad bosses are bad for business. As the global economy continues to recover, many corporate leaders are assessing and making decisions on how to improve the performances of good, bad and mediocre bosses.

More leaders "are now focusing on good bosses and what it takes to be a good boss," Grossman says. "While it's true some people may just not be cut out to manage other people, most of the skills to being a good boss are definitely learnable."

Born or Made?

Grossman brings up a point that many business pundits say is the working world's version of the "nature vs. nurture" question: Are good bosses born, or are they made?

"There is some element of personality that makes for a good boss," reflects Jim Finkelstein, president and chief executive officer of FutureSense Inc., a management consulting group in San Rafael, Calif. "But being a good boss isn't all about personality. Most of the skills can be learned through experience and training."

Bosses learn to be good through on-the-job experiences, training, mentoring and coaching. Leaders at Hoar Construction Co. in Birmingham, Ala., focus on providing the training, experience and mentoring it takes to make their managers good bosses. Hoar requires that managers go through a rigorous two-year regimen equivalent to earning a master's degree in business administration. "What it takes to be a good boss can be taught and learned. But it's definitely a two-way street. Good bosses have to be willing to learn and make an effort," says Rob Burton, president of the 565-employee company.

Coaching and mentoring can be key elements in shaping good bosses, according to Finkelstein. "The value of having someone point you in the right direction and show you what it takes to be a good boss is incalculable," he says.

Finkelstein and Grossman agree that most skills for being a good boss revolve around communication. "Communication and effective leadership are intertwined," Grossman says.

Employers that focus on developing managers' communication skills tend to have good bosses, he adds.

The best bosses:

  • Tell employees what is expected of them.
  • Explain clearly how their departments and individual efforts contribute to the success of the organization.
  • Provide constant feedback on job performance.

"The best bosses are empathetic and fully aware of how their decisions and the decisions of upper management affect their employees," says Sebastian Bailey, president of The Mind Gym Inc., a management consulting group in New York City.

7 Steps to Better Communication

  1. "Only leaders can provide the information employees crave in a way that makes it meaningful for them and gets them connected to the team and organization," says David Grossman, chief executive officer of The Grossman Group. 
  2. According to Grossman, these seven steps are key to good communication and to being a good boss:
  3. Seek out and provide context for organizational information. Ensure that your team clearly understands how its priorities and goals fit into the company's overall goals. When a mistake happens or a project gets off track, ask, "What context didn't I provide for my team?"
  4. Make information relevant by translating information so employees understand how they fit in and what's in it for them. Help them see how what they do contributes and is meaningful for your team and organization.
  5. Provide job-related information so your team receives essential information to help them do their jobs effectively. Research shows that the boss is the preferred source, bar none, for job-related information.
  6. Provide information and feedback on individual performance and other employee-related matters such as recognition of achievements and contributions, or ways to be better.
  7. Provide information with a sense of empathy. Consider your business goals from your employees' point of view to accomplish steps 1 to 4.
  8. Leaders need to understand how they are performing from employees' point of view through activities from engagement surveys to listening sessions conducted by impartial third-party organizations.
  9. Establish a cadence of communications that enables employees to know there will be predictable, reliable and consistent opportunities for getting information from leaders and supervisors and giving their feedback.

Leaders and Managers

Bailey points out that good leaders often develop a strategic vision and guide an organization toward reaching strategic business objectives. However, the day-to-day management of people takes different skills.

"Businesses tend to over-invest in leadership and concentrate on developing leaders but not managers," Bailey says.

Leaders may develop business strategies, but how managers set about achieving those strategies makes a difference.

Bailey recalls his work with a client he could not name due to nondisclosure agreements. The large retailer had a strong strategic plan and was doing well in most areas except for one division. Corporate leaders put a new senior manager in place. Within six months, that boss turned the division's performance around. "Most anyone can do the same," Bailey says.

The manager first learned the names of the approximately 400 people in the division. He developed clear and understandable objectives and communicated those goals to employees. He painted a vivid picture of how their individual contributions would help the division meet the objectives.

He also concentrated on providing the best possible customer service and set an example. He challenged employees to do the same and gave them leeway to make decisions and suggest improvements. In other words, he empowered employees and provided constant feedback and encouragement.

"Mistakes were viewed as opportunities to learn and do better," Bailey says. The manager made "a strong connection to all the employees in the division and made them realize that they were valued."

Possibly, the worst shortcomings a boss can have are to be indifferent and not connect with employees, according to Bailey.

"Indifference means that a boss just doesn't care and most likely is looking out for No. 1," he says. "Gross indifference and promoting your own agenda are the hallmarks of bad bosses."

Psychosis or Indifference?

Some management experts claim that indifference toward the welfare and interests of employees can indicate a psychosis or psychopathic tendencies. A 2010 study conducted by Robert Hare, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology for the University of British Columbia, found that 4 percent of senior-level managers displayed psychopathic tendencies compared to the 1 percent normally found in the general population.

Hare's study was a follow-up to results found in his Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (Harper Collins, 2007).

Clive R. Boddy, Ph.D., a professor of management at the Nottingham Business School in the United Kingdom, took Hare's findings a step further. In an article in the December 2011 Journal of Business Ethics, he claimed that the 2007-08 financial crisis was caused by psychopathic bosses calling the shots at the large Wall Street investment banks.

However, Bailey and Grossman agree that the term "psychopath" is extreme. Bailey, whose clients include 500 companies, says he has never encountered any executive he would classify as a psychopath.

"I have encountered bosses whom I would say were cold and indifferent, but to call them psychopaths is clearly over the top," he says.

Possible Cure for Indifference

Indifferent bosses will typically lead to indifferent and unengaged employees, and that can be devastating to a business struggling to survive in the uncertain global economy. Dick Grote, a performance management consultant based in Frisco, Texas, says a lack of talent development is one sure sign of indifference from a boss and should set off red flags for HR and senior managers.

Grote worked for GE and PepsiCo as an HR practitioner specializing in performance management. He says that these corporations have incorporated talent development into managers' job responsibilities and performance appraisals at all levels. Hold bosses accountable for how they engage and encourage their staffs, Grote advises.

At Hoar Construction, "Twice a year, we meet with managers to discuss the leadership and talent development of their staffs," Burton says. "This is also something we try to do on a daily basis. Providing opportunities for career development is very important to motivating employees and to keeping the best and the brightest." Executives' and managers' reviews explore how they develop talent.

Grote and other experts say bad bosses often are promoted into jobs they just can't handle or don't have the personality to manage other people.

"Just because someone is a great individual contributor doesn't necessarily mean that they will be good at managing others," Finkelstein says. "It happens often when someone has great technical expertise but just hasn't had any real experience managing."

Finkelstein and other experts recommend that HR professionals take a hard look at the best fit for high-performing individual contributors. Often, a typical career path into management just isn't the right move. Some warning signs of a misplaced contributor include:

  • Lower productivity.
  • Higher turnover rates.
  • More requests for transfers.
  • More employee complaints of inappropriate behavior–such as shouting, name-calling and being overly confrontational.

"Whenever we have had a problem and an employee is discharged, my first question to that employee's boss is always 'What mistakes did you make in this situation, and how can we fix that next time?' " Burton says. "And I expect an honest and candid answer, because if it happens again, and the manager is faced with a similar situation and someone loses their job, then that can signal a problem that we have to address immediately."

It's not an HR professional's job to identify bosses to stay or be removed–that's the job of directors and executives in charge of departments or divisions. HR professionals do, however, serve as listening posts and relay information to senior-level managers about managers' problems and successes.

"Be an advocate for employees," Grote says. "HR professionals can gather feedback and information through employee attitude surveys, exit interviews and listening to employee complaints."

Such advocacy is "one of the most important roles HR has to play in our organization," Burton says.

It can be a delicate balancing act, because tough bosses who demand top-level performance from employees can also generate worker complaints. So, it's up to HR professionals to get a clear picture and then deliver accurate and fair information to senior managers.

"Honest assessments of a manager's abilities and performance can be hard to do. Politics and corporate culture can be major stumbling blocks here. But it is definitely in an organization's best interest to put that aside and take an honest look at how someone is performing and fits into the organization," Finkelstein says.

Avoid Inertia

According to Finkelstein and Grote, the No. 1 mistake employers make when it comes to a bad boss is to allow inertia to set in.

"Keeping someone in a job that they clearly aren't right for is something businesses do all the time," Finkelstein says. "Choosing not to do anything or–even worse–promoting the person to get them out of the job can be very damaging to overall employee morale and engagement."

Grote says corporate leaders must make changes as soon as it's apparent that a manager isn't right for the job. He acknowledges that this is easier said than done, and that executives tend to reward loyalty and longevity through promotions and the management career track.

"But there are ways people can contribute to an organization other than getting placed into a management track," he says. HR professionals can "make suggestions where a person can be most effective."

While office politics can contribute to inertia and keep some people in jobs longer, the workplace is changing through technology and virtual work teams where politics don't play as big a role. Teams with members working on projects together through electronic communications are providing opportunities to individual contributors. If HR professionals understand these new roles and help employers get the right fit for management jobs, then they can help each and every boss get better.

"I know that the advice and counsel of HR has definitely made me a better boss," Burton says.

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.​

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