Can Bad Boss Behavior Be Fixed?

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 14, 2016
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Is your boss someone who claims credit for your work? Someone who makes inappropriate remarks around the office? A ghost who is never around to discuss important projects or to answer employee questions?

Maybe you work for the “scholar,” the boss who has never met a management fad he didn’t like and reads about how to lead but rarely puts the information into practice. Perhaps you work for a “no, but” boss, who shoots down the team’s ideas in favor of his own. Or maybe you have a boss who so desperately wants to be liked that she fails to take charge and doesn’t deliver difficult messages for fear of being less popular.

While you may be tempted to jump ship to find calmer waters, don’t be too quick to act. Most bad bosses are “fixable,” said Doug Hutton, vice president of operations at Second City Works, the business-to-business side of the famous Chicago-based comedy theatre and improvisation group. In September 2015, Second City Works surveyed more than 2,000 North American employees about bad boss behavior.

Generally, it found, bad bosses are deficient communicators, are poor collaborators and lack empathy. However, those are fixable traits, Hutton said. “They are teachable skills that require practice. This isn’t something that’s going to change overnight.”

A poor collaborator, for example, doesn’t know how to develop a sense of team.

“They don’t give feedback well, and they don’t really develop those around them. They don’t communicate expectations well,” he said.

Communication counts: The top complaints nearly 1,000 U.S. employees surveyed by Harvard Business Reviewhad of their boss: Not recognizing their achievements, giving murky directions and refusing to talk to them. Additionally, a survey of 7,712 U.S. adults by Gallup that asked respondents to rate their boss on specific behaviors found that providing meaningful and consistent information was one characteristic of a good boss who engaged with employees.

Lack of empathy can take a variety of forms—shooting down others’ ideas or expecting direct reports to work beyond typical office hours, for example.

Training for the Traits You Want

Hutton acknowledged that not all bad boss traits are fixable; don’t expect inappropriate comments to vanish with the wave of a wand. However, through training, such as immersive games, and day-to-day check-ins with a coach, supervisor or mentor, bad bosses can be taught to manage and support their teams effectively.

“It needs to be an ongoing modeling of great behavior and engaging [the bad boss] with the skills you want them to use,” he said.

HR plays a role in transforming bad bosses into great leaders and building a culture of empathy and collaboration, according to Hutton.

“The tone that HR sets when it comes to how people manage, how people lead, affects the whole organization,” he told SHRM Online. This is especially important because “one bad boss will infect the stakeholders they work with, their team members.” The result can be increased turnover. “The folks [we surveyed] who said they had a bad boss are more likely to look for a new job.”

A Gallup study released in April 2015 found that about half of the 7,200 adults it surveyed had left a job to get away from their manager.

Psychotherapist and business coach Kevin Mays, a self-described “fix-it” guy who for 10 years helped organizations turn around bad boss behavior, has found that bad bosses are often task-oriented people who are “lousy at the human relations end of things.

“Most bosses fail to recognize that their biggest responsibility is to create engagement in the organization,” said Mays, author of Totem: Mastering Team Performance (Dog Ear Publishing, 2015).

He pointed to losing sports teams that start winning after a change of coach. That’s not surprising, he said, because a bad boss’s actions can create fear, physical ailments, and loss of engagement and concentration among team members.

Ongoing dialogue is necessary to change bad boss behavior, but it takes time.

“You don’t just go in and do a culture initiative and it’s done. It’s like turning a battleship; it takes time retraining the leader’s brain,” Mays said.

Tracking that change should be part of the bad boss’s performance review, he noted. “Otherwise [the initiative] gets lost. If the company is interested enough in investing resources in turning this person around, it darn well better be [reflected] in the performance review.”

Employees’ Role

Employees need to take responsibility for their role in the dysfunctional relationship they have with their boss, Mays said.

“There are two people who create this thing, and certain people will be impacted more by a [bad] boss than others. Why is this?” Mays asked. “It goes back to the dynamic that gets formed.”

There are exceptions, of course.

“If there are things [that are] blatantly in violation of the company’s code of ethics or are immoral, you have to report that. At some point, you have to make the hard decision to say, ‘This is not acceptable.’ You have to … follow the chain of command” in those situations, he said.

Barring unscrupulous, unethical and unlawful behavior, Mays suggested employees act on their own behalf by taking the following steps:

*Take 100 percent accountability for yourself. Are you making excuses or are you in denial about your own role in the dynamic? Be aware of your own behavior and thoughts. Often, employees seek validation among colleagues that the boss is the problem.

*Talk to your boss. “Have an authentic conversation with the other person in a way that assumes positive intention. Most people don’t want to do things that have a negative impact [on the organization]. They believe they’re doing the right thing. Try to position yourself as [the boss’s] advocate” and not his or her adversary, Mays advised.

If that doesn’t work, he pointed out, you have to decide whether to leave your job.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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