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

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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

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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?

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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.

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

In assessing what makes for a good place to work, the contrast between a “can do” and a “can’t do” organizational culture is a major distinguishing factor.

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.

The “can’t do” organization, by contrast, makes it hard for even the best of projects to succeed and for new ideas to get off the ground. It sets up layers of bureaucracy, promotes people programmed to say “no,” and plants hedgerows at every stage of approval and implementation. It saps the morale and energy of some of its best people.

And then there’s a maddening hybrid variety, the dysfunctional, balkanized organization that readily supports ideas (good or bad, it doesn’t matter) coming from its inner core group, while instinctively blocking initiatives proposed by those it keeps on the outside.

I suggest that you’ll find a heavy concentration of “can’t do” and hybrid organizations in the lower ranks of their respective fields or vocations. This may seem self-evident, but obviously it isn’t so to a large cross-section of institutional leaders. Meanwhile, their more inclusive, secure peers at successful organizations are reaping the rewards of a culture that embraces innovation and quality.

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Related post

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (2011)

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Recycling: Five years of September

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

September 2013: Does the Dunning-Kruger Effect help to explain bad bosses and overrated co-workers? — “The Dunning-Kruger Effect has major implications for the workplace. It likely translates into incompetent people demanding better pay and perks, and regarding themselves as especially worthy of elevation to management positions. They may be more effective, or at least more assertive, when it comes to self-promotion. By contrast, competent people may well be more modest about touting themselves and their accomplishments. Some may self-select out of opportunities and promotion possibilities, figuring that other more worthy candidates will apply. They may be less likely to see themselves as leaders.”

September 2012: Will workplace bullying behaviors become increasingly covert and indirect? — “…I’d like to offer a reluctant hypothesis: As workplace bullying continues to enter the mainstream of American employee relations, and as advocates for the workplace anti-bullying movement enjoy greater successes in public education, employer awareness, and law reform, bullying behaviors at work will become increasingly covert and indirect.”

September 2011: Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.? —  “I cannot speak with sufficient authority about whether the legal systems in other nations are capable of handling criminal claims for workplace bullying, but I do believe that making standard-brand workplace bullying a criminal offense in the U.S. would create significant challenges for targets seeking justice and seriously disrupt our workplaces.”

September 2010: Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? — “Say you’re a human resources director who honestly and fervently believes that treating employees fairly and with respect is a classic win-win practice. It makes for high productivity and happy workers, right? If you work for an organization that shares your values, you’re a partner in a great match. But what happens if you don’t?”

September 2009: When workplace bullying triggers workplace violence — “In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that ‘there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.’…Sadly, it appears that a workplace killing in Fresno, California last week was a replay of that scenario.”

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