March 03, 2009

Are Dysfunctional Managers a Necessary Part of the Business Cycle? Suggested Approaches to Address Dysfunctional Management


They cannot manage their own lives, yet they may bully to manage yours. These are the dysfunctional managers. They are focused on managing, even micro-managing, the details, getting things done, accomplishing the strategic business plan and meeting the financial goals of the businesses that pay them, but not relating to the people they supervise. While the success of the business is an admirable goal, during that process dysfunctional managers tend to alienate employees and business partners and may lose their connection with their families.

Traits of the Dysfunctional Manager

Their personal backgrounds and experiences may have included separation or divorce, strained family relationships or alienation from children, smoking and or battling obesity or anorexia; yet, they have been successful in business. It is an interesting paradox that demands exploration. How can individuals who are not focused on the people they manage, the opposite of the servant leaders who preceded them, succeed in the 21st Century? The answer appears to lie in their business successes, the short-term financial and strategic results they can engender, often at the cost of employee or associate engagement, the watchword of the later 20th Century.

A 2007 study released by the San Francisco-based Employment Law Alliance, as reported by the Society for Human Resource Management in an HRMagazine May 1, 2007 article, “Study: Bully Bosses Prevalent in U.S.,” “found that bullying in U.S. workplaces is alive and well. And, in many cases, managers and supervisors are the bullies: Nearly 45 percent of the respondents reported that they have worked for an abusive boss.”

In a September 25, 2000 article by Sarah A. Klein in Crain’s Chicago Business, “Take that you big, bad corporate bully! More firms seek ways to tame uncivil bosses, workers,” reported that “in one national survey, 53% of workers who reported themselves the target of incivility said they lost time worrying about incidents at work, from receiving a nasty or demeaning note to enduring a supervisor’s temper tantrum. Almost half of the group in the University of North Carolina’s ‘Workplace Incivility Study’ said they contemplated changing jobs to avoid the offender, and 12% actually followed through.”

An earlier recognition of problems associated with dysfunctional managers was addressed in a November 1, 1991 American Management Association article “Coping with Dysfunctional Managers,” in “Supervisory Management.” That article early in the last decade began to recognize the dysfunctional managers as “adults who grew up in dysfunctional families” and learned special coping skills, not as those adults who became dysfunctional based upon their later life experiences. Yet that summary, citing an article by Francine S. Hall in the Summer 1991 issue of “Organizational Dynamics,” has some applicability today in its observation that, “frequently, says Hall, the organizational culture unwillingly contributes to a dysfunctional manager’s destructive behavior. If control, for instance, is valued within the company, the dysfunctional manger might fit all too well into the framework.”

In a June 10, 2008 op-ed piece for “Business Wire” by Stephen Xavier, CEO of Cornerstone Executive Development Group, “Micro-Managing CEOs Are a Danger Sign in This Economy,” Xavier observed “there are also micro-managers who will jump from one large company to another. Given his record at Home Depot, one would have thought that Bob Nardelli would have had trouble getting hired as CEO of any major corporation. Yet, this old-school authoritarian CEO has found a home as CEO at Chrysler which unsurprisingly has the same history of poor labor relations, shoddy products and eroding market share.”

In The Dumbest Moments in Business History: Useless Products, Ruinous Deals, Clueless Bosses and other Signs of Unintelligent Life in the Workplace, Adam Horowitz, editor, Portfolio, the Penguin Group, New York, 2004, relates the January 2003, statement of Goldman Sachs Group CEO Henry Paulson concerning the investment banking firm’s employee layoffs for which he apologized to employees by voicemail a week later. “I don’t want to sound heartless, but in almost every one of our businesses, there are 15 to 20 percent of the people that really add 80 percent of the value. Although we have a lot of good people, you can cut a fair amount and still be well positioned for the upturn.” (p.21)

Richard Farson in Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, Simon & Shuster, Inc., New York, 1996, wrote “many of us have the idea that as managers we can use our skills to shape our employees as if we were shaping clay, molding them into what we want them to become. But that isn’t the way it really works. It’s more as if our employees are piles of clay into which we fall—leaving an impression, all right, and that impression is distinctly us, but it may not be the impression we intended to leave.” (p. 41)

Although there has been a wealth of academic research on dysfunctional workplaces and the people who manage them, there has been a noticeable absence of material in the popular literature on the subject of dysfunctional managers. Some popular management books have addressed the “boss from hell,” such as Managing Your Boss, by Sandi Mann, Barron’s, 2001. In the section on “dealing with the boss from hell,” Sandi Mann characterizes bosses as bullies if they are continually abusive and arrogant, exploding angrily, constantly criticizing, belittling, ridiculing employees. Mann suggests that while such bosses, similar to impatient or stressed bosses, achieve their desired results, there are serious consequences to employees due to chronic workplace bullying including serious health problems for employees and lost time to the business.

A few books, such as When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses, by William and Kathleen Lundin, McGraw-Hill, 1998, and Crazy Bosses, by Stanley Bing, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, address the demoralizing short-sighted management decisions, thoughtless actions and rude behaviors of managers and the obnoxious and dangerous insanity of managers, respectively. The Lundins wrote, “Dysfunction can be the outcome of dumb (inept, misguided, insensitive, power-driven, unfeeling) leadership or dumb (tradition-bound, blind-sided, arrogant) organizational thinking.” (p. 117) They further wrote, “we predict more and more of what this paradigm example shows as organizations, out of competitive anxiety, dash toward ‘technological fixes’ without considering how the people who have to adapt to those ‘fixes’ need to be helped to do so.” (p. 117) Stanley Bing writes “bully management is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks for those who wish to survive in a world filled with the impressive variety of sick senior officers.” (Crazy Bosses, p. 75) He noted the inconsistent nature of the bully manager with “vast emotional swings depending on mood, often seemingly unrelated to external circumstances,” (p. 75) further noting that “management by terror has been a time-honored technique because it works.” (p. 76)

The Paradox Businesses Face with the Dysfunctional Manager

Many organizations adopted a family style culture during the latter part of the 20th Century. However, some quickly became dysfunctional family styled organizations, focused on a few functional details that yielded to the short-term success of the organization and its leaders rather than the engagement and empowerment of employees or associates. Communication, sensitivity and caring, which are at the heart of a fully functioning and competitive organization are hazy or lost in dysfunctional management styles. After relating many interviews with a variety of employees the Lundins observed “the most compelling observation is how people in power—from those who manage a small department to leaders of multinational corporations—believe they have the right to manipulate and play with the emotions of their employees.” (p. 173)

An example of the bully as a dysfunctional manager is one who appears in a temper at the employee’s office questioning the status of activity or demanding a status report when it was previously provided, but the manager did not take them time to save it or look for it. Or in the mean spirit of another example, demeaning an employee with years of published and very successful writing experience with the statement “you sometimes write as though English is your second language.”

The Dilbert cartoon strip by Scott Adams has popularly and perhaps now properly characterized the dysfunctional bullying boss. In The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions, HarperBusiness, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1996, Adams described the change in the management selection process from the Peter Principle of workers being promoted to bosses beyond their levels of competence to the Dilbert Principle of the most ineffective workers being “systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.” (p. 14)

In The Dilbert Principle Scott Adams shares an email submission that is similar to the statement of the Goldman Sachs Group CEO previously identified in The Dumbest Moments in Business History.

“A newly appointed VP of my company, in an interview printed in the internal company news rag, made the following comment when asked whether existing employees would be relocated if the company won an upcoming contract, or if the company would instead hire local people:

‘Engineers are basically a commodity. It doesn’t make economic sense for the company to pay for moves when we can buy the same commodity on site.’

Naturally, this disturbed some individuals in the workforce and a number of them showed up at an all-hands meeting held by this VP a few days later and sat in the front row plastered with signs labeling themselves as ‘Bananas,’ ‘Pork Bellies,’ etc.” (pp. 295, 296)

Yet, these dysfunctional managers are frequently successful, in a financial sense both as individuals and for their organizations. In the Human Resource Management article describing the 2007 study by Employment Law Alliance, its CEO Stephen J. Hirschfeld was quoted, that “changing the behavior of workplace bullies could be problematic for employers, Hirschfeld concedes, because workplace bullies can be high performers. Aggressive or ‘type A’ behaviors tend to be rewarded in the workplace, but Hirschfeld contends that employers need to draw the line and make sure aggressive workers don’t become abusive managers.” A Wall Street Journal article viewing the recruitment of chief executive officers observed that the characteristics of recent CEO hires have been focused on specific financial talents, details and successes rather than on the broader team leader or coach models of the past. A September 1, 1996 article on “Making it, CEO style,” in “Executive Female by D. A. Benton stated that among five personality traits of chief executive officers ”“the higher you go, the more exposure to the big picture you have, the more you might think being detail-oriented is unnecessary. Wrong. It’s just the opposite. According to near-perfect chefs, the higher you go, the more critical it is to be aware of details.”

In Management, a Revised Edition by Peter F. Drucker with Joseph A. Maciariello, HarperCollins Publishers, 1973, 1974, in the introduction to management and managers, Drucker observes “there is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting along with people, as qualifications for a manager. These alone are never enough. In every successful organization there are bosses who do not like people, who do not help them, and who do not get along with them. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, they often teach and develop more people than anyone else. They command more respect that the most likable person ever could. They demand exacting workmanship of themselves and other people. They set high standards and expect that they will be lived up to. They consider only what is right and never who is right. And though often themselves persons of brilliance, they never rate intellectual brilliance above integrity in others. The manger who lacks these qualities of character—no matter how likable, helpful, or amiable, no matter, even, how competent or brilliant–is a menace who is unfit to be a manager.” (p. 10) Drucker concludes, “Organizations are far from perfect. As every manger knows, they are very difficult; full of frustration, tension, and friction; clumsy and unwieldy. But they are the only tools we have to accomplish such social purposes as economic production and distribution, health care, governance, and education. And there is not the slightest reason to expect society to be willing to do without these services that only performing organizations can provide. Indeed, there is every reason to expect society to demand more performance from all its institutions, and to become more dependent upon their performance. And it is the managers who make institutions perform.” (p. 526)

Reforming or Reassigning the Dysfunctional Manager

Returning to the American Management Association’s article, “Coping with Dysfunctional Managers,” cited earlier in this article, efforts a decade and a half ago to solve problems related to the behaviors of dysfunctional managers were in their infancy. That article stated that in solving the problem, “often supervisors of dysfunctional managers mistake behavior problems for management skills problems. But for the true dysfunctional manager, attending seminars on improving management will have only short-term success. Once a manager has accepted the fact that he or she is dysfunctional, Hall advises, a recovery program should be sought. As for organizations, how companies both recognize the problem and effect solutions will be one of the most difficult challenges for managements in the next decade.”

One method to identify the dysfunctional manager to senior management is to allow the manager to demonstrate dysfunctional incompetence in the forum it most frequently appears. For example, if it occurs in meetings find an appropriate opportunity to invite the dysfunctional manager’s supervisor to a meeting or if it occurs in written or verbal communications seek witnesses. This may, however, be a long-term effort that may not have a desirable short-term result. Another approach may be to identify documented problems seeking solutions from appropriate sources. Still another approach may be to a peer or three level review.

Rather than providing seminars and additional training for dysfunctional managers, the solution may include intensive efforts to identify dysfunctional managers and provide coaching or reassignment when those follow-ups are needed. One-on-one coaching, engaging a mentor relationship or even peer networking groups with other managers focused on identifying issues adversely impacting the dysfunctional manager’s style may lead to behavior modification techniques.

If the Problem is Not Addressed: Potential for Legislation

Some articles, such as the 2007 Human Resource Management summary of the Employment Law Alliance study on bullying in the workplace, suggest that a growing awareness of the problem could result in the potential for legislation if employers fail to remedy the situation. That article reported, “There are proposals in about a dozen states for some form of workplace bullying legislation.” It also referenced “a recent anti-bullying law enacted in the Canadian province of Quebec that gives workers the right to file suit against their employers and to recover damages for ‘any vexatious behavior that affects an employee’s dignity or their psychological or physical integrity.”


The inevitable conclusion, however, is that the cycle of the dysfunctional non-abusive manager may be the right type of manager for the current competitive business environment, facing cost-cutting efficiency, financial challenges and economic declines domestically and internationally. Since dysfunctional managers may have difficulty self-identifying their need to transition their management style, organizations must be prepared to assist them in that transition through coaching and mentor or peer networking opportunities. If the dysfunctional manager cannot to adapt hardened characteristics to the amiable and servant leader model of management, reassignment or termination may be the course an organization should consider.

There is hope, however, that in the foreseeable future effective managers with the hardened characteristics of the qualified manager that Drucker proposed, and who remain for the longer term, can adapt those characteristics to the amiable and servant leader model. That combined model appears to have staying power that will bring longer-term success to the organization and the relationship with its employees or associates.


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