The Devil At The Desk: Destructive Bosses
The onus is on leadership to improve employee engagement. It’s part of that magical workforce trifecta: a terrific candidate experience, a high level of workplace engagement, all resulting in retention. But what about when the leadership is toxic; when it’s more problem than solution? That’s a whole different ballgame.
We’ve all dealt with a boss or manager that just somehow turns everything into a losing proposition: Never satisfied, or mysteriously withholding the recognition we know that we — or our colleagues — deserve. Or do we? A certain click of engagement involves a clarifying moment when we ditch that, “maybe it wasn’t good enough” naysayer on our shoulder — so much a part of working for someone. It’s replaced with a sense of self-worth. Terrific. Nothing makes us like our jobs more than when our jobs like us.
But often with toxic leadership is that gray area between our gut and clear recognition that keeps us from knowing what we’re facing. Meanwhile, morale sinks and engagement fizzles. We may do a, “why should it matter” on ourselves, but we’d be wrong. It does. As a study by the Harvard Business Review pointed out, the social atmosphere created by a leader is contagious. Measuring engagement among high-level managers (HL) and mid-level managers (ML) and employees, the study found that the higher the engagement score among HL, the higher among ML and the higher among employees. And the contrary was also true: a low performing workforce with minimal engagement could be echoed right back up the line — to the source.
A friend and colleague of mine, Shawn Murphy (the CEO/Founder of the consultancy Switch + Shift), has identified the six key symptoms of destructive management. See which ones ring true for you. What follows are his categories with a little bit of interpretation by yours truly.
Blind impact. This leader is blind to his own impact: oblivious of the effect his actions, attitude and words have on the workplace, quashing any chance for shared optimism, consistently underestimating people’s value, and often unable to make the connection between their work and the direction of the organization.
Anti-social leadership. A leader who can’t build any sense of shared purpose or community among employees. Autocratic, possibly unable to trust people, he dictates rather than explains, withholds praise or credit, and generally makes people feel disconnected and used.
Chronic change resistance. AKA the stick-in-the-mud approach. This leader is unwilling — and unable — to spearhead a change that would help teams and organizations remain relevant. Alternatively, he adopts change too late in the game that it can’t have a fully beneficial effect, which leaves everyone feeling irrelevant.
Profit myopia. Blinded by any criteria for success except for the bottom line, this leader can’t see the forest for those little green dollars. He alienates customers and employees alike trying to come up with ways to make the shareholders happy and the margin a little fatter. This is a kind of personal pettiness that, if Harvard is right, will lead to self-protective behavior on the part of employees.
Constipated inspiration. Perhaps my favorite term (and a virtual clap on the back for this one, Shawn). This one is related to leading from a position of insecurity. A leader pays little to what her employees are experiencing, and therefore can’t see what motivates and discourages them. What follows is a complete lack of connection: a leader who has no sense of clear direction and knowledge of what she stands for, and a workforce that loses the ability to care.
Silo Syndrome. I remember reading a CEO’s candid admonition of his rather imperious peers: “No executive is an island,” he said. A leader who suffers from this syndrome is a non-leader: Disengaged in anything but his own role and responsibilities, and unable to view his employees as people with lives and their own expertise. No sense of optimism or collaboration can come of this.
What I appreciate so much about these breakdowns (particularly in terms of the issue of workforce and employee engagement) is that they represent a cross-section of behaviors that often go as accepted — the fussy, strange, distracted, distant, uncaring boss as a, “she’s just like that.” But once identified, they no long just seem like a status quo. It’s not business as usual to prevent a workplace from being a place of engagement. Not in this day and age.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com on 2/5/2016