A recent article by Marcel Schwantes in Inc. Magazine summarizes new research on the key traits of bad bosses. Guess what key trait makes for the worst type of boss?
Absentee leadership is harder to detect and does not fall into one of the classic leadership patterns considered “bad” for the workplace: the bully, the insecure blamer, and the narcissist. But new research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more damaging than being treated poorly.
Absentee leaders tend to be psychologically absent from their employees and shy away from any meaningful professional interaction with them. While absentee leaders are not yelling at or abusing employees, their disconnection from employees, always giving predictably positive feedback, and not taking responsibility for team decisions. This can be especially destructive because the hardworking employees who are actually trying and paying attention aren’t getting the support and feedback they need to succeed. Instead, they are dealing with “pretend leaders” who are MIA when it really counts.
Consider a team comprised of 1 over-achieving employee, 1 average employee, and 1 below-average employee. When the detached manager of that team gives all 3 employees the same positive feedback and tells them all they are doing a fine job, the result is a pattern we see all too often. The over-achiever will be frustrated that her hard work is not being recognized, and she will decide there is no point in continuing to work so hard and be so committed. The average employee, who by definition loves the status quo, will continue to skate along doing just what needs to be done and not much more. The below-average employee will be thrilled because he’s found a clueless boss. Having faced no consequences and having been implicitly rewarded by doing less while being equally praised, the below-average employee will continue making little effort and will continue to model his unacceptable attitude and performance characteristics to the rest of the team.
It’s What Bosses Don’t Do That Matters…
This last point is critical – employees are always observing. They watch each other, they watch their bosses, and they watch the company. Employees notice who works hard, they see who follows the rules, and they see who gets rewarded and punished. An employer’s HR strategy must start from this universal truth. When a boss errs on the side of being too relaxed with his or her employees, and acts more like a buddy than a boss, the whole team’s attitude and performance suffers. The end result is an under-performing and often disrespectful workplace. Although it seems counter-intuitive, research confirms that employees most often complain about what their bosses don’t do, not what they do.
…and Makes Employee Lawsuits More Likely
What happens when the employer decides to terminate one of its poor performing employees who has been led by an absentee boss? Because leadership has been absent, the employee will have “no idea” why he is being terminated. After all, that employee has never been expected to follow the rules. He’s never been told that his performance was unacceptable, and he’s never been told that the company was measuring and monitoring his performance going forward. Plus, that employee has watched his absentee boss suffer no consequences while continually bending and breaking the rules herself, which taught the employee that no consequences will follow his rule-breaking either.
If the company tries to break that cycle and institute consequences this time, the terminated employee is stunned. “When no one was following the rules, why am I being singled out?” The employee, whose experience allows him to find no explanation for what happened, feels singled out. This leads to anger, which makes litigation even more likely.
What started out as a boss trying to be “nice” and letting his team do as they please has ended up with a toxic workplace and a terminated employee who is likely going to sue.
Our Experience Confirms this Research
Unfortunately, we see this situation a lot in our practice, especially among new clients who lack a formal HR infrastructure. When we encounter this phenomenon, we encourage the employer to “tighten up” its HR practice and structure. Clients are at first resistant because they think that imposing rules in the workplace makes them look “mean.” Other clients think that employees need to be “friends,” which of course leads to a lack of rules and management and feedback because “friends” don’t play that role with each other. Still others get “too busy” running the business, so in their distraction employees are left to do as they please.
But therein lies the problem. You aren’t being “mean” when you are acting like a boss. Instead, you are giving structure to employees who are looking and monitoring everything you do and say – implicitly telling them that this is a workplace, that you take your role seriously, and that therefore you expect them to take their role seriously. Conversely, you aren’t being “cool” or “a fun friend” when you get buzzed at a team lunch meeting or pull out your vaporizer in your car on your way back to the office. You are, instead, telling your employees that you don’t take your role or their career seriously, and that they, therefore, don’t need to either.
What’s the Solution?
So, what’s the solution? It’s counter-intuitive…but it’s true. Act like a boss. Institute rules. Follow those rules yourself and hold others accountable for following them, too. Institute a system of measurements and reward employees who follow your rules and perform well (and penalize those who do not). Be likeable but be professional. After all, your employees have plenty of friends. What they need is a boss and a company who cares about their career and will teach, motivate, and reward them for their success.