When boss behaviors fall short of bullying, but still prompt an “oy”

If we define workplace bullying as intentional, often repeated, verbal or non-verbal mistreatment of employee that causes mental or physical harm, then it follows that a lot of not-so-great behaviors fall short of that threshold. Bullying, as I’ve come to think of it, is targeted and usually malicious in nature. “Bad bossism,” on the other hand, is simply that.

I just read Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview of Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, and I’m glad that I don’t work for her. (Barstool Sports, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a “bro” site featuring lots of sports talk and photos of scantily clad co-eds.) While nothing in the interview necessarily cries out “bullying boss,” Nardini’s punishing management practices and assessments of humanity aren’t for everyone: 

1. She’ll run people into the ground in order to build a better Barstool.

I think I’m punishing. I have a large ability to grind. If I want something or if I believe in something or I think something should be done better, I will push and push until I exhaust people.

I really value stamina and drive. I am bad with stagnation and complacency. It’s not just about winning, but did we do everything possible to make something happen?

2. That includes being available 24/7, and she’s going to test that during your interview phase.

If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.

[In response to the followup question of permissible response time] Within three hours. It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time. Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.

3. She’s got a single-lens, 90/10 view of humanity.

I had to learn, and I’m still learning, about the kinds of people on my team who can run in my system, which is pretty hard-driving.

…There were people who weren’t into it, and it took me a long time to learn that there are people who I call “90 percent players” and there are “10 percent players.”

The 90 percent players are superdependable. They work hard every day, and they’re amenable to whatever you want to do.

And the 10 percent people may not be great 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time they’re genius, and they’re genius at the moment that matters.

It took me a long time to learn that there’s a beauty and a gift in the 10 percent people, and you have to be able to unlock it.

Oy, indeed.

It would’ve been great had interviewer Bryant followed up with a question about work-life balance, but we’ll have to imagine Nardini’s response. (I’d predict some variation on “work hard, play hard.”)

To be fair, Nardini is no different than any other CEO who expects their underlings to demonstrate fulsome devotion to their jobs. She’s merely among the latest to regard her management philosophy as worth bragging about. Of course, we’re used to hearing this stuff from certain male CEOs, so perhaps it’s a sign of ironic, umm, progress, that a female CEO is spouting more of the same.

Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

Searching for great bosses

photo-499

For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

Jobs on the job are rare: Most cruel bosses aren’t indispensable geniuses

photo-140-2

Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, uses the premiere of a documentary about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, by Alex Gibney) to examine the complications of idolizing a brilliant creator who also could be a very nasty individual. The new documentary, Garber tells us, does not flinch in examining this side of its subject.

Garber’s own characterization of Jobs, while recognizing his genius, acknowledges his deep flaws:

He could be, on top of so much else, a terrible person. Not just a jerk, occasionally and innocuously, but a bully and a tyrant. . . . Jobs regularly parked his unlicensed Mercedes in handicapped spots. He abandoned the mother of his unborn child, acknowledging his daughter only after a court case proved his paternity. He betrayed colleagues who stopped being useful to him. He made the still-useful ones cry.

Garber and the documentary ask the inevitable questions that crop up whenever “brilliant” and “bully” allegedly combine in one individual, such as whether big positives justify major failings, and whether being a jerk is necessary to succeed.

Of course we know that being a bully or a jerk is not a prerequisite for success. But all too often, people excuse abusive behaviors by claiming these qualities are eccentricities that we must tolerate if certain geniuses are to flourish. I’ve addressed those questions on this blog (here and here), and you can guess where I come out on them.

But more importantly, we need to emphasize this point, lest a massively erroneous assumption become accepted as conventional wisdom:

Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

Got it? Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

To begin with, people with the creative, entrepreneurial vision of Steve Jobs are rarities. Secondly, the ones who happen to bully and berate are rarer still.

In reality, the most abusive bosses tend to range from competent to bad in other aspects of their job performance. Like the rest of us mere mortals, they are wholly replaceable. In fact, those who cannot get their act together and treat people with a baseline of dignity should be sent down the exit ramp.

Many of these supposed superstars do have a useful skill: They are brilliant at kissing up and kicking down. They stroke and cultivate superiors, who, in turn, react with disbelief when allegations of mistreatment come from subordinates. They create a mythology about their value to the organization. They also have a sixth sense for self-preservation, including a knack for rubbing out those who call attention to their abusive behaviors, without any pangs of conscience to give them pause.

So, the next time you hear folks raise the “Steve Jobs defense” in response to allegations of bullying and abuse, call them on it. It’s very likely that when you dig beneath the surface, you will quickly see that the supposed genius is anything but that.

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces?

photo-139-2

Over the years I’ve written a number of pieces discussing the qualities of good bosses, leaders, and workplaces. Here are a few that capture consistent themes about creating quality work environments:

NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace (2009)

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, the New Workplace Institute suggests asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers . . .

Typing Your Workplace Culture (2009)

Building on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, Drs. Hartling and Sparks distinguish between healthy “relational” cultures and dysfunctional “non-relational” cultures. . . . A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2013)

I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes: . . .

Is your organization a “can do” or “can’t do” kind of workplace? (2014)

The “can do” organization empowers and enables its workers to create, innovate, and initiate. While recognizing that resources aren’t limitless and that every new idea isn’t necessarily a good one, it nonetheless nurtures an ethic of support and encouragement. The “can do” organization can be an exciting, engaging place to work.

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

But when it comes to leading organizations, the ability and willingness to encourage, support, mentor, inspire, and permit others to do quality work is the key to success. These leaders allow people to run with things, responsibly but enthusiastically, and sometimes the results can be extraordinary.

You want good leaders? (2010)

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists. Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment. But don’t take my word for it. Rather, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar.

Energy leadership, organizational culture, and workplace bullying (2013)

Is your organizational culture more “anabolic” or “catabolic”? And how does the answer to that question relate to workplace bullying? In his book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life form the Core (2008), coach and therapist Bruce Schneider identifies two types of energies that can shape and even define an organizational culture . . . .

On brilliant but cruel bosses

To what degree should we tolerate superstar bosses who treat others like dirt?

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Tony Schwartz writes about visionary leaders such as the late Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Elon Musk (Tesla), who are well known for their nasty and cruel behaviors toward co-workers, especially underlings. Predictably, the piece raises questions about how much extra leeway should be granted these geniuses in view of their unique gifts.

When I give talks or interviews about bad bosses and workplace bullying, oftentimes some variation of this question comes up: If you want to stop workplace bullying, then does that mean we’ll lose the contributions of people like Steve Jobs? The hidden assumption behind the question is that we’ll all be deprived if these gifted but sometimes mean-spirited people are chased out of the workplace. The irony isn’t lost on me, given the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook I use just about every day.

Well, I’m not here to call for a boycott on companies and organizations that have nasty bosses. (That might cut out a lot of places.) But I do want to take a deeper look at this visionary-but-cruel scenario that is sometimes posed as a gotcha question:

1. At the line — Yup, some of these folks may highlight the light between the abrasive boss and the abusive one. Personally, I don’t think that being a major league jerk necessarily equates with being an abusive bully, but it can if the behaviors are bad enough.

2. Crossing the line — That said, once the behavior crosses into cruelty, verbal abuse, or physical abuse, then some type of intervention is appropriate. OK, so maybe the Master of the World isn’t going to be shown the exit ramp as quickly as a mail room clerk with anger management problems, but extraordinary talent doesn’t justify abuse of others.

3. Public accountability — Especially when horrible bosses live in the spotlight and reap the accolades for their successes, then it’s absolutely right for their acts of work-related, interpersonal mistreatment to be known, too. A public legacy should cover the waterfront. It’s not unfair for folks like Jobs, Bezos, and Musk to be called out for their terrible treatment of co-workers.

4. Indispensable, visionary superstars are rare — People like Steve Jobs come along oh-so-rarely. Most cruel bosses are wholly, utterly expendable. We should be attune to the fact that many of them, especially those with deeply narcissistic tendencies, are often skilled at creating a mythology about their value to the enterprise, especially among those who control their fates.

In a piece I wrote several years ago, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” (Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 2008), I suggested that a strong test of an organization’s values and ethics is how it handles a case of severe workplace bullying perpetrated by one of its leading executives or “rainmakers.” I stand behind that point today. Institutions that sweep work abuse under the rug because the perpetrator is at or near the top of the organizational chart are among the lowest of the low.

%d bloggers like this: