Your Workplace is Broken and It’s Your Manager’s Fault

June 5 , 2019 •  9 minute read • by Saeed


“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boos the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, its amazing what they can accomplish.”

~Sam Walton

In high school, I had an English teacher who used to say that if you have one good friend in the course of your lifetime—just one—you should consider yourself lucky. Mr. Smith was right and the same can be said about good managers.

While the world’s workplace is going through extraordinary change, the practice of management has been frozen in time for decades.

Employees often cite lackluster benefits, low engagement, and lack of a challenge for their low levels of satisfaction. But when it comes to high levels of turnover, one culprit is likely to blame: poor management.

It’s been said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers, and in companies with high turnover, this is often true.

Turnover is costly to an organization in terms of both money and morale and losing a high-performing employee can be detrimental to a company’s health.

While a competent boss is likely to retain employees, an incompetent manager is likely to have the opposite effect. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, there is a strong correlation between a competent manager and an employee’s satisfaction. In other words, the more competent the boss, the more likely the employee is to stay with the company.

But that kind of competence is an endangered species and when turnover is high in a company, that’s a sign that Nessie may be lurking just below the surface (Nessie is the adorable name given to a large marine creature believed by some to inhabit Lock Ness, Scotland).

Fear and Loathing On the Shop Floor

A 2012 study, conducted by psychologist Michelle McQuaid, the author of Five Reasons to Tell Your Boss To Go F**k Themselves, found the majority of Americans are unhappy in the workplace—and more often than not, they say their boss is to blame.

In fact, 35% of U.S. employees said they would willingly forego a substantial pay raise if their direct supervisor got fired.

Gallup research found that 60% of government workers are miserable because of bad bosses. Significant percentages of US workers describe their bosses as follows:

  • Self-oriented (60%)
  • Stubborn (49%)
  • Overly demanding (43%)
  • Impulsive (41%)
  • Interruptive (39%)

Even more alarming, research by New York-based psychologist Paul Babiak has suggested up to 4% of business leaders in the US could be psychopaths.

Too often businesses focus on the bottom line but neglect the human beings who are the backbone of the organization.

What human beings need (besides good leadership) is psychological safety.

Just Google Psychological Safety

Google conducted a massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

It may be stating the obvious that when people are afraid, it hampers their creativity. Employees won’t take risks or try new things if they are in a constant state of fear.

When you manage via intimidation, people will fearfully work to meet expectations – but they will never exceed them. They will do the minimum required to keep you off their back but that’s as far as they will go. If you want to get optimal performance from people you have to not only capture their heads, but also their hearts.

When you create a safe, encouraging work relationship where it’s ok to make mistakes, you’ll end up with employees that are more proactive, creative and innovative.

Your Bad Boss Could Be Killing You (Literally)

Poor leadership is also resulting in elevated levels of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and indecisiveness across nearly all workplaces. But far worse, studies show that bad bosses are also bad for your heart.

In these studies clear links have been established between aggressive, intimidating or “bad” supervisors with increases in anxiety, depression, the deterioration of personal relationships away from work and, yes, even heart disease.

One longitudinal study conducted by Swedish researchers at the Stress Institute in Stockholm found that employees who had managers with the following traits are 60% more likely to suffer coronary heart disease:

  • Their managers were incompetent.
  • They were inconsiderate.
  • They were secretive.
  • They were uncommunicative.

In another large-scale study of over 20,000 employees conducted at the Karolinska Institute, results showed a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees.

Conversely, the Karolinska study also showed that employees who rated their managers as inspirational, positive and enthusiastic also reported less short-term sick leave.

Good management is clearly good for the bottom line, morale and turnover, but as it turns out, it’s also good for your cardiovascular health.

How So Called Leaders Fail to Lead

Besides their poor communication skills, lack of transparency, and their myopic vision, there are a number of other key ways that poor managers fail to lead. The list is actually quite long but I have tried to whittle it down here to the most problematic and observable behaviors of toxic bossary. If you recognize more than one of these signs in your boss, it may be time to start browsing the help wanted section of your local newspaper (is there still such a thing?)

1) They Are Narcissists Who Lack Empathy: Practically everyone I know, including myself, has either worked for a narcissistic boss or been exposed to one. You know the type: they are quick to claim credit and quick to assign blame. They treat everyone like they are dispensable, using people for their own gains and then discarding them, either literally or emotionally. Unfortunately, this one trait overrides every other.

Narcissists are fixated on controlling all outcomes, usually through micromanaging behaviors, sometimes subtle and sometimes guileless. They are usually hyper competitive and disingenuous. They will not think twice about firing you on the spot if you fail to agree with their point of view. These workplaces often have an undercurrent of fear because the employees have seen other staff members thrown out at a moments notice and fear the same could happen to them. Worst of all, narcissists lack remorse having very little to no ability to feel empathy for others. Due to their inflated sense of self-importance, the feelings of others are not something that keeps them up at night.

The Fix: Narcissists love flattery due to their over-inflated egos. If you are independently minded and refuse to kiss up to your narcissistic boss, or worse yet, challenge them in any way, your head will invariably be on the chopping block and the guillotine will fall swiftly and decisively. The best advice I can give you is to make a decision (to leave) before one is made for you.

2) They Take Credit For Your Work: A study done by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 37% of polled employees were happy with how their ideas were received by their supervisors. In Good to Great, Jim Collins highlighted Level 5 leaders who were characterized as being exceptionally modest (which is one reason why few of them were well-known prior to the book). As the old saying goes, modesty is a virtue. Modest leaders share credit, which encourages their colleagues to contribute more effort and feel better about themselves and their help in producing organizational success.

The Fix: If you are the manager-leader, acknowledge your employees’ hard work and ideas and give credit where credit is due, both publicly and privately. Strong, confident, and effective manager-leaders take pride in the success of their people and are happy to sing their praises. It creates a win-win situation and is at the foundation of employee engagement. If you are the employee and your boss is not a narcissist, they may not realize they’re hogging the glory. If this is the case, having a private discussion with your boss may be enough to do the trick.

3) They Are Micromanages: There is nothing good about a practice that will eventually lead to a massive breakdown of confidence and competence in your employees. That’s gthe impact of micromanagement. What may be perceived as short term gains (control and task completion) never outweighs the long term loss of micromanaging otherwise perfectly competent staff. It is likely that they will end up becoming dependent on you, resenting you and eventually leaving you.

The Fix: Consider the reasons why managers micromanage in the first place (ego, insecurity, inexperience, perfectionism, arrogance). Train and coach managers in effective delegation techniques that provide the needed information for job completion without micromanagement. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests that you delegate results rather than methods. Tell your employee the objective you have for the task at hand and let them go. As long as you get the result you’re looking for and your team member learns along the way, we have a win/win.

4) They Show Favoritism: Poor leaders promote a culture of favoritism, often protecting or promoting those who reinforce their own ego. Once on a job, a manager confessed to me unabashedly (because she was also a narcissist) that she had a favorite on the team. The favorite got special assignments, special perks, and they were friends outside of work (all telltale signs). Not only are these arrangements unfair and unethical, but they kill staff morale. The blindside of their ego also doesn’t realize that the favoritism is rarely reciprocated. The teacher’s pet in my own example left for a better paying job the first chance she got.

The Fix: If you are the one favored, the most professional thing you can do is to not accept the benefits of favoritism. If the shoe is on the other foot, don’t resent the favored employee. After all it’s not their fault. You may have to other colleagues to check your perception or to HR if the situation is particularly egregious. Failing that, be patient, always endeavor to maintain trust, maintain your self-belief and stay positive. 

5) They Are Critical: To put it mildly, these bosses never learned how to give constructive feedback. Criticism is like a productivity poison injected into your veins. It has a negative effect on your self-image and studies have found that your self-image has far more to do with your performance than any other indicator. Many people who face endless criticism from a bad boss wind up quitting – as they should.

The Fix: First, easier said than done but try not to take it personally. Recognize that getting defensive, withdrawing or reciprocating the criticism is counterproductive. Try balancing out the criticism by getting positive feedback from other sources. Find a mentor or two, inside or outside your organization, to give you the constructive feedback you’re not getting from your boss. If you are a manager who is struggling with how to give constructive feedback, attack the problem, not the person; describe observable facts, not opinions or hearsay; and offer specific suggestions for improvement. 

Houston, We Have A Leadership Crisis

Combine too much work, too many demands, too many unrealistic expectations with too little appreciation and too many managers who, well, couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag, and you have a full fledged leadership crisis.

Companies make crucial mistakes when developing new managers, especially first time, front of the line leaders.

A survey of 1,367 executives by the Institute for Corporate Productivity reported that even among the best, highest performing companies, 66 % reported that they were ineffective at developing leaders and were getting worse.

Often, people are promoted into management roles for all the wrong reasons. The criteria used to promote is subjective, political, and/or not well thought through. Critical training opportunities are overlooked in the crucial first 90 days or not provided at all.

There is no correspondence between power and competency. It is more important than ever that we get leadership development right. The onset of new technologies means all kinds of professions are now in the cross hairs of change and nearly every organization is in the middle of some seismic industry shift.

This radical shift requires radical reformulation of the leadership ethos. Good leadership is a workplace right, not a privilege.

A Final Word

In Stanford Business School Professor Bob Sutton’s brilliant treatise on the subject of leadership aptly titled “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” Professor Sutton makes a well-reasoned argument that these despots, tyrants, and bullies are bad for the people that work with them and for them, and for the organizations that harbor them.

But he is also emphatic about this point: even if assholes are successful, life is too short and too precious to tolerate them.

Personally and professionally, I have yet to come across a workplace where leadership is not broken. Twenty-first-century success depends on good leadership and good leadership depends on trust, integrity, generosity, and empathy, among a slew of other character traits. There’s no team without it. And without team, there is no organization.

Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors on the part of leaders.

Be weary of bullies, despots, ego-driven narcissists and tyrants. Bosses behaving badly or ineffectively lead to workplace zombies, high levels of stress, burnout, and attrition. McQuaid who’s taking on workplace bullying, one boss at a time, says ridding the workplace of the scourge of bad bosses will save our economy $360 billion in lost productivity each year.

We must demand more and expect better from our leadership. It’s good for the bottom line, good for the customer and good for the economy. Most importantly, it’s good for our health.

Good luck.

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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC

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