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Building a Better Boss

Bad managers can make or break your organization's ability to achieve its goals. Here's how you can help them improve.

Christian Shinkle, SHRM-CP, admits that he used to be a bad boss. Working as a restaurant manager years ago, he says, he was a “Gordon Ramsay-type,” alluding to the reality TV chef from “Hell’s Kitchen” known for berating contestants.

Shinkle would shout at employees, detailing their mistakes in blunt terms. And it was effective, for a while. “I was able to get things done, and I got promoted,” he says. 

But his behavior backfired several times. He recalls the turning point for him. As he was yelling at a new cook for being slow, some of his other employees staged an intervention of sorts. “Why are you talking to him like that?” they asked. 

Shinkle realized his behavior only made the new cook more nervous, and it disturbed the rest of his staff. He trained himself to think about how to solve the problem rather than flying off the handle each time someone didn’t perform as expected or made a mistake. 

“A lot of times, just by slowing down and looking at it from the employee’s perspective, you can understand why the employee made the mistake in the first place and figure out how to prevent it,” says Shinkle, who’s currently an HR manager for Jax LLC, which operates Golden Corral restaurants from its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

So, when he recently heard that a restaurant manager was shouting at workers, he told him: “We’re not paying people enough to get treated like that. If there’s a problem, you’re going to have to talk to them about it.”

Bad bosses—whether they’re on the front lines or in the executive suite—can make employees’ lives miserable. The behavior of a poor manager lowers morale and increases stress. Ultimately, research shows, organizations suffer from increased absences, lower productivity and higher turnover. 

“The person who sets the tone for the team and helps you be successful or not is the manager,” says David Deacon, a 30-year HR veteran and author of The Self-Determined Manager (Motivational Press, 2019).

But HR professionals are in a unique position to help managers improve, contributing to their companies’ long-term success.

“Managers are almost like a secret weapon for us,” Deacon says. “If we can align the managers in a way that gets them creating those team dynamics … that gets them propelling their teams forward, we can make an enormous difference for our organizations.”

The Damage 

Companies can’t achieve their goals without employees who are engaged and productive, and managers are the critical touch point. 

Half of workers who quit their jobs say they left because of their managers, according to the results of Gallup’s 2017 State of the Workplace survey. Employee dissatisfaction with their bosses has been linked to low engagement scores. Only one-third of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs, and, globally, just 15 percent are engaged. Managers alone account for 70 percent of the variance in team-level engagement, according to Gallup.

And the damage caused by a problematic manager can be felt long after he or she is gone. 

“Having a bad manager, even up to five managers ago, can still have a residual effect on performance today,” says Brian Kropp, group vice president of Gartner’s HR practice. 

In their defense, managers are juggling workloads that have increased dramatically over the past decade. The average middle manager has 50 percent more direct reports than a decade ago, Kropp says, and spends about 15 percent less time with each of them.

This is partly the result of a changing work environment. Organizations are demanding that everyone do more. Technology is constantly changing. Managers are flooded with data, requiring ongoing analysis and quick decisions. 

“They have all of the responsibility without much authority or support to make decisions,” Deacon says.

Thirty-seven percent of 1,285 managers surveyed believe it’s “very challenging” or “extremely challenging” to manage the performance of others, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey conducted in 2018. And 38 percent believe it’s very or extremely challenging to develop the right culture for effective performance.

What Bosses Do That Makes Employees Leave

Here are some of the top manager issues that cause employees to quit their jobs, according to a survey of 1,043 employed U.S. adults conducted by The Harris Poll for Yoh.

Show disrespect for employees in lesser positions           
Break promises 46%
Overwork employees42%
Have unrealistic expectations 42%
Play favorites 40%
Gossip about other employees 39%
Be overly critical 37%
Micromanage their employees  35%
Don’t listen when employees voice their opinions 34%

Lack of Training

Many managers are promoted because they excel as individual contributors or simply for seniority. And companies often don’t provide rigorous management training, focusing instead on processes and procedures. At most, managers may be taught how to write a performance review or a performance improvement plan.

“We put them in charge of other people, and someone teaches them to do a little extra paperwork, but nobody actually teaches them to do the people work,” says Bruce Tulgan, founder and chief executive officer of RainmakerThinking Inc., a manager research and training company. Tulgan is the author of The 27 Challenges Managers Face (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

When managers are trained, often the focus is on telling them how to respond when things go wrong. 

Organizations might be reluctant to invest in training because of the cost. However, the price tag for training may pale in comparison to the costly impact of bad managers, says Luana Graves Sellars, who provides HR consulting with Talent Curve Solutions, based in Cary, N.C.

Even if it’s not feasible to direct more training dollars toward managers, HR can help raise awareness within their organizations about what good management looks like.

As chief talent officer at Mastercard for five years, Deacon gathered anonymous employee feedback about supervisors in annual surveys. While the risk of false positives or negatives is high, Deacon says, “it signals loud and clear that how someone is managing people is important.”

Great managers understand the impact they have on their team members’ work environment.

“Good managers consciously and deliberately choose to create an environment for the team where good things happen,” Deacon says. “A great manager will figure out what each individual can and should contribute, and what the collective ambition should be, and will be very clear on what that looks like.”

The best managers are constantly asking: How do they need my help? How can I help them grow? By encouraging their employees’ growth, they give them something to work for—and create a more productive team as a result, he says.

In addition to more and better training, some companies are using technology to provide new managers with extra support. For example, research shows that people tend to think about quitting after their birthday or when it’s been a while since they last took a vacation. 

“We’ve started seeing companies use technology to nudge a manager around when these important events are occurring,” Kropp says. “These are the times you should check in with employees to see if they’re at an elevated risk.” 

How to Build and Qualify People-Ready Managers

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is helping HR build better People Managers by creating the People Manager Qualification (PMQ), a new learning program scheduled to launch later this year. 

The program’s evidence-based resources are designed to help new and aspiring managers master the people-focused skills they need, including how to:

  • Hire team members with the right skills.
  • Have conversations to motivate team members and improve their performance.
  • Develop team members’ skills for becoming effective learners.
  • Leverage assessments of people to enable greater efficiencies.
  • Evaluate team dynamics and resolve conflicts.
  • Make the most of partnerships with HR team members.

The program will provide an interactive, dynamic learning experience featuring virtual, instructor-led courses with immediate takeaways. Managers will receive more than 40 hours of virtual learning programming, along with self-assessments and other learning-proficiency assessments, and they can practice what they’ve learned with virtual role-play exercises. The goal is to help managers develop skills that they can use immediately to improve their teams in the near-term. Most important, the program can help HR unlock human potential within organizations, empowering HR professionals to become strategic leaders in workforce development and corporate sustainability.

“If you ask yourself, ‘What can I do to build a better workplace for a better world?’ creating better people managers is the likely answer,” says Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s chief knowledge officer. For more information, click here.

Raising Self-Awareness

Good managers don’t shout, bully, belittle or play favorites. But poor managers might not realize that these behaviors are counterproductive. 

“Most bad managers think they’re doing a fine job,” Kropp says. “They generally lack self-awareness. In those situations, trying to convince someone that they’re doing a bad job is rarely successful. They have to come to their own self-realization.” 

HR professionals can guide those conversations with managers to help them realize that there are better ways to achieve their goals. 

Here are some common types of problematic managers and advice for helping them improve, according to management experts:

Micromanagers. Employees say micromanagers are the worst type of boss, according to a 2018 Comparably survey of 2,248 respondents, primarily in the tech sector. Their constant second-guessing and smothering behavior frequently stems from their own insecurity, says Joan Caruso, managing director of The Ayers Group in New York City, which provides executive coaching.

They can change if they can learn what’s causing their insecurity. Often, it’s fear.

“There are managers, men and women, who have imposter syndrome,” Caruso says. They think if they let something slip, others will find out they’re not worthy of their position.

Caruso once coached an executive who was a control freak. She learned that he had survived a plane crash when he was young. As a result, “he never wanted to give up control,” she says. “What we try to do as a coach is help them unpack that.” 

She uses role-playing exercises to help micromanagers learn to delegate more tasks to team members. The exercises might also give them the ability to understand how their actions can be demoralizing for subordinates. She tries to help them realize that they’re empowering others when they let them make decisions. 

‘We put them in charge of other people, and someone teaches them to do a little extra paperwork, but nobody actually teaches them to do the people work.’
Bruce Tulgan

Neglectful managers. The opposite of micromanagers, these managers don’t provide their direct reports with the guidance, support and coaching they need. Tulgan argues that there’s an “undermanagement epidemic” going on in the workplace right now. 

Without adequate training, most new managers won’t spend quality time with their individual team members. They say they’re too busy. Or they think they’re communicating because they e-mail them or see them in meetings.

“What happens is managers lull themselves into a false sense of security,” Tulgan says. “They think they’re keeping track. But problems hide below the radar, and then they blow up.” 

Then, everyone’s scrambling to put out fires, leaving little time for quality one-on-one conversations with employees. The team is caught in a vicious cycle of undermanagement.

Todd Saffell, HR manager at Rueter’s, a 130-employee construction and agricultural equipment distributor based in Des Moines, Iowa, says he recently had two technicians quit after just six months with the company because their manager failed to provide a consistent workflow. They would finish one job, for example, and then wait hours for their next assignment.

“We worked with that service manager as well as others to develop long-term plans so the employees can see the workflow,” including what their next job will be, Saffell says.

As a result, workers are able to plan ahead better. “If you know it’s getting close to planting season, you’re less likely to take a day off because you understand the direct impact on that customer,” he says.

Bully bosses. They rule through fear and intimidation and leave workers cowering in their wake. Caruso gets their attention by asking: “Could you behave differently if your job depended on it?” Then she tries to determine if they bully everyone or just those they supervise. 

Usually, bullies will behave quite differently around those who outrank them. She considers that a positive sign. It means they’re aware of their behavior and can control it when it’s beneficial.

“For some, all they need to hear is that they’re never going to be promoted again if they don’t stop,” she says. But it can take a long time to break bad habits and even longer for those around them to believe that they’re truly reformed.

Caruso helps bully bosses identify their triggers and teaches them how to avoid or respond to those triggers. (They can agree, shut up or walk away.) Sometimes, she’ll even write scripts for them. She teaches them to ask questions before they react, such as “Can you help me understand the situation?” 

However, she admits, coaching doesn’t always work. 

“I can’t make them change,” she says. “The company can’t make them change. If they won’t, I have to go back to the CEO and say, ‘You have to create consequences.’ ”

Beyond the potential legal risk of creating a hostile work environment, bully bosses can damage an organization’s reputation. When employees quit, they might record their complaints on employer-review websites such as Glassdoor. Sometimes they’ll even name the offending manager. HR professionals can show such comments to the bully boss and explain that these reports could limit their future career opportunities, she says.

In some cases, faster action is required.

“If their behavior has heightened to the level that they’re scaring employees, I honestly don’t think they have a place in the workplace,” says Skye Mercer, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant based in Iowa City, Iowa. 

Slamming doors and cursing at subordinates are unacceptable, period. Mercer says she would refer a manager exhibiting such behavior to the employee assistance program for an anger management class.

‘I can’t make [bully bosses] change. The company can’t make them change. If they won’t, I have to go back to the CEO and say, “You have to create consequences.” ’
Joan Caruso

Divisive bosses. These managers play favorites, pit team members against one another and hoard information as power. 

“Bad managers divide and conquer,” Deacon says. “They like individuals to feel they’re at a disadvantage.”

But team members acting collectively can push for change. HR professionals should take these complaints seriously and search for data, such as engagement scores and turnover rates, to demonstrate a business reason to compel better behavior, he says. 

When working with divisive managers, Caruso will often suggest simple behavior changes to get the ball rolling. If a 360-degree feedback survey shows employees don’t feel appreciated, she will help the manager pick small things to thank employees for that week. She’ll ask the manager to record his actions and staff reactions in a journal to help him be more conscious of the encounters. And they’ll discuss the actions in their biweekly meetings. 

Helping problem managers improve can seem like a lot of effort. Business leaders might think it’s not worth the cost. But those leaders might change their minds if HR helps them understand the price of allowing bad managers to continue mistreating their teams.

“People leave bosses, even if they’re in good jobs,” Caruso says. “And they stay because of good bosses.”  

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya.

Surviving a Bad HR Boss 

By Sherrona Lawrence, SHRM-CP 

HR professionals have had bad bosses, too. Bad bosses add stress to your workday and can even make you question your career choice. I’m living proof that you can survive a bad manager. 

Here are some tips: 

Keep your cool. Bad bosses like to push you to your mental limit. Take a deep breath and concentrate on turning your negative situation into a positive one. Keep a smile on your face, even if it’s fake. It gives you some sense of control. 

Don’t be shy. Bad bosses have a way of taking credit for your work. Include your initials in your projects, and casually mention what you’re working on with business leaders.

Think big. Bad bosses can crush your dreams. Stay focused on your long-term career goals. Find a mentor outside your organization. 

Stay confident. Bad bosses can damage your self-image. Don’t doubt yourself. Seek support from friends and colleagues. Volunteer to help others.

Be prepared to move on. Bad bosses are sometimes protected by the company because they’re moneymakers, or maybe they’re related to the founder. In those cases, you have three choices: 1) learn to tolerate the bad manager, 2) find a new position at the company under a different manager or 3) find a new job elsewhere.

If the stress of working for a bad boss is affecting your health, you should definitely make a change. As HR professionals, we’re expected to take care of our employees. But, as my favorite saying goes, “take care of yourself first, or you’ll have nothing left to give others.”

Sherrona Lawrence, SHRM-CP, is benefits administrator at Youth Advocate Programs Inc. in Harrisburg, Pa.