August 27, 2007

When Bosses Go Bad -- and Get Rewarded

We've all seen it -- the bad boss who should get canned, but who gets promoted instead. The clueless, mean-spirited manager or executive who is hated more than anyone else, but who, somehow, rises higher in the ranks than anyone else.

And we wonder, is it just our company? Just our industry? Well, take heart. It happens everywhere, according to a study on bad bosses presented earlier this month at the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Asked what happened to a particularly "bad leader" they've worked for, nearly half (45 percent) of employees surveyed reported that the offending boss was promoted. Another 19 percent said nothing at all happened to the person, and only 13 percent said the bad leader was forced out of the organization.

The three researchers, from Bond University in Australia, who conducted the study said it was "remarkably disturbing" that 64 percent of the bad bosses were either rewarded with promotions or left alone.

The online survey of 240 people in the United States and Australia was part of a larger study, in which one-third of those surveyed also reported that working for these bad bosses caused them serious stress, including fatigue, insomnia and bad dreams.

While the Australian researchers may have been surprised that so many bad bosses get promoted, some who study this particular breed of office animal say the survey was right on target.

"The more incompetent someone is, the faster their career takes off," says John Hoover, author of How to Work for an Idiot: Survive and Thrive Without Killing Your Boss. Hoover notes that, in a typical organization, the path to a higher salary and perks, such as stock options, lies in getting promoted. The problem, he says, is employees and managers often get promoted out of their areas of competency -- and their comfort zones. They become incompetent, insecure, defensive -- in short, bad bosses.

"We institutionalize bad behavior because the only way people can be rewarded is to be taken out of their element," says Hoover, who is also an executive coach with Partners in Human Resources International, a New York-based HR consultancy.

When people are comfortable, they're liked by their co-workers, says Hoover. "It's when they get promoted away from it that they become gargoyles."

And it gets worse, he says. These bad bosses surround themselves with incompetent sycophants who provide camouflage and can serve as convenient "sacrificial lambs" if the boss's own incompetence causes problems, he says. When someone higher in the organizational chart leaves the company, this entire "pod of incompetence," as Hoover calls it, gets bumped up the ladder.

One might think that these bad bosses wouldn't get promoted, that smart executives up the line would see them for what they are and show them the door. But, says Hoover, "When you look down a silo, you only see the cork at the top. You don't see what's bottled up behind it."

"If the metrics are working," he says, the top executives "assume the whole organization is working like a well-oiled machine."

There are a couple of things HR can do about all this, says Hoover. One is to help redesign the organization so that people can get raises and perks without having to get promoted. "This will keep people in their competencies," he says. Another approach, he says, is for HR to try to determine in advance -- through tests and other measures -- whether a person will make a good manager.

Elaine Varelas of Keystone Partners, a career-management firm in Boston, says bad bosses are often promoted because, at many organizations, managing people is not considered as important as making money for the company.

As a manager, you're valued "if you deliver the financials, if you deliver the deals," rather than on how well you deal with people, says Varelas, who writes a regular column on talent-management issues for The Boston Globe.

Top executives might be aware a manager is a bad boss, "but they might not know what to do about it," she says. "They might be worried that if they make a change, the results they want in other areas won't be delivered."

Varelas believes the prevalence of bad bosses will become more of an issue as baby boomers leave the workforce and competition for talent heats up.

"As organizations are more concerned about retaining people, we'll see something done about these bad bosses," she says. Because such bosses generate turnover, "retaining the right people will be seen as just as much a critical success factor as delivering on other, more quantifiable results."

From: Human Resource Executive Online


Stuart said...

I disagree with one aspect of this - bullying is not rewarded in successful companies where "the metrics really are working". It is when resources are cut and managers are under pressure (as in higher education now) that bullying individuals become destructive and are rewarded for their hollow promises of output.
Time and time again, the exposed bully is discovered to have lied on CVs, misreported "the metrics", transferred new research income into under-performing programmes and forced out the most productive staff. But management still rally round such "tough managers" and "loyal staff" to protect them from the "disloyal" individuals who speak the truth about failing programmes, underfunding and missed targets.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful article! A hard working bright and talented professional can become very

discouraged while working in these environments.

I've had the unfortunate displeasure of working for both a bullying boss and a completely incompetent

boss with no people skills. I worked for both of these bosses back-to-back in two different positions

in the same company.

The bullying boss not only stole from the company, but broke every kind of harassment law under the

corporate sun in daily one-on-one beating sessions with their subordinates that made many employees

quit. Many employees came forward to out this managers evil ways to higher executives. A full

investigation was conducted, and in the face of insurmountable evidence against this boss (including

colossal mistakes that cost the company millions) NOTHING was done to correct the situation. This

person still has their job, with an even higher salary and everything is proceeding in a "business is

usual" format.

My second boss was a very young, very overpaid, painfully shy introvert with absolutely no experience

and no people skills. This person wanted to sit in front of a computer with their head in a

spreadsheet all day just calculating numbers. They were scared to death of actually having to manage

anyone. They did not know how to communicate, or teach, or make any decisions. As a result of this

incompetence, their subordinates found themselves desperately flailing around trying to make some sort

of business order in a sea of chaos caused by the managers obliviousness. Because of this, each person

working under this manager was continuosly set up to fail, and fail they did. TWO THIRDS of the

employees under this manager had poor performance reviews where everything was blamed on the employee.

The manager was not accountable for any of it. As a result, these employees lost their jobs... and the

manager.... got promoted.

I am stunned at the outcome of both of these situations and I am trying to understand why this sort of

thing happens in the workplace today. It is best said by this segment of the article:

Top executives might be aware a manager is a bad boss, "but they might not know what to do about it,"

she says. "They might be worried that if they make a change, the results they want in other areas

won't be delivered."

To this thought I would like to add one more observation: The top executives in this company all

shared one commonality, none of them wanted to "get involved". They all just hoped that if they

ignored it, it would go away. A despicable behavior of neglect when you consider these people are paid

to shoulder the responsiblity of correcting such poisonous behaviors. Of course this company suffers

from a high turnover rate because of this bad leadership. But as long as we are "making the numbers"

people will always be considered disposable.

What can we do to change this?????