What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces?


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.


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.”

Recycling: Five years of June

With some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, 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.

June 2013: What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? — Taking issue with the notion that there’s a prototypical bullying target.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

June 2012: Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts — More of my case for a liberal arts education.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.

June 2011: The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation — Cutting-edge research and analysis on workplace bullying, by and large, has come from academe’s grassroots rather Ivy-type institutions.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

June 2010: The good vacation and why it matters — Americans would benefit by being able to take more genuine vacation time.

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously? At least for Americans, the answer is yes. We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right. Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided. It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done. Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

June 2009: The Tyranny of Word: How Microsoft Hurts Office Productivity — When features of popular word processing software change with each new edition, the primary impact is more time sucked into learning the changes, not greater productivity.

The best word processing program ever developed, in my opinion, was WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, released in 1989. It was fast and clean, with lots of bells & whistles for its day. Once you learned how the function keys operated, you could fly through a document as fast as your fingers could type. In terms of document formatting, it did what you wanted it to, rather than what some control freak programmer assumed you wanted it to do.

Forbes on firing your bad boss

For those toiling under bad or even abusive bosses, here’s the stuff of fantasies: How can I get my boss fired?

Susan Adams, writing for Forbes.com, took on the question, interviewing experts in employee relations (including Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute) on the likelihood of underlings being able to push out a terrible boss. Her verdict:

Countless workers fantasize about getting their boss fired, but few succeed. I talked to five career coaches, a corporate consultant, a lawyer, and a management professor about how disgruntled workers might oust their superiors, and although I gathered a handful of success stories, all of the sources agree: Think many times over before you try it, because you will likely fail.

Okay, so it’s not exactly a surprising conclusion. Nevertheless, the full article does include stories about workers who made it happen, albeit usually with a lot of time and effort.

The gloomy prospects of staging a palace coup against lousy leadership reflect a broader reality about the typical American employer. The average workplace is a command-and-control operation from the top, and little effort is made to solicit rank-and-file input on the performance of organizational leaders.

This is especially so in the vast majority of sites where no union is present to serve as a source of countervailing power. Most workers are at-will employees who may be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, so long as the firing is not grounded in some illegal motive such as discrimination. And even though retaliating against workers for labor activism may be illegal, in many instances these violations are not remedied.

No wonder, then, that Adams concludes her article with advice from career counselors suggesting that unhappy workers devote their efforts to securing new employment rather than going after the boss. It probably makes sense, even if it means that some workplaces will continue to inflict bad leaders on revolving doors of workers for the duration.


Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

Toxic work environment prompts dismissal of French museum president

If you think that work life in the creative sectors manages to escape toxic leadership, please think again. Bad leaders can be found anywhere, even in occupational areas devoted to advancing creativity, artistic expression, and cultural enrichment.

Case in point: The president of the Musée Picasso (Picasso Museum) in Paris, Anne Baldassari, has been relieved of her duties amidst an employee relations crisis implicating her leadership. Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times that the French culture ministry, which presides over the Picasso Museum, announced that:

…Ms. Baldassari had been dismissed because of a “gravely deteriorating work environment.” It cited a management review in March by an inspector general who recommended an overhaul because of “profound suffering in the workplace and a toxic atmosphere” that had provoked a series of resignations by high-ranking officials . . ..

Furthermore, a statement by Claude Picasso, the artist’s son, suggesting that the workers’ concerns were exaggerated  “galvanized more than half the museum’s current staff of 45 people to issue a statement over the weekend in which they described a management style marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication.”

Sometimes we may naïvely assume that because an organization’s mission is devoted to a seemingly higher purpose, those who lead the enterprise share a commitment to fair employment practices and worker dignity. If only that was so…

Working notes: Bullied bus monitor update, whistle blowing books, and massive U.S. job dislike

Here are three work-related stories worth a look:

Bullied bus monitor retires and pays it forward

Last year, video of a group of 7th graders mercilessly taunting and ridiculing 68-year-old school bus monitor Karen Klein went viral. The Rochester, NY students subjected her to a humiliating stream of insults and profanities, all caught on tape by a classmate. I wrote about it here, including a link to the video, which still is hard to watch.

In the aftermath of her experience, a good samaritan named Max Sidirov used a social media site to raise money intended to provide Klein and her family take a needed vacation. But a rush of pledges totaling some $700,000 poured in, enabling her to take the retirement she thought was impossible in view of her $15,000 annual salary. At the time, Klein said that she would use some of the money to address problems of bullying and suicide.

Today she’s making good on that intention. Carolyn Thompson, reporting for the Associated Press (here, via Boston.com), details how:

Klein used $100,000 as seed money for the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation, which has promoted its message of kindness at concerts and through books. Most recently, the foundation partnered with the Moscow Ballet to raise awareness of cyberbullying as the dance company tours the United States and Canada.

‘‘There’s a lot I wish I could be doing, but I don’t know how to do it,’’ Klein said.

‘‘I’m just a regular old lady,’’ she added with a laugh.

Books on whistle blowing

Sunday’s Boston Globe included Katharine Whittemore’s welcomed review essay on books about whistle blowing, the first time I’ve seen such a piece in a major newspaper. She begins by saying, “When it comes to whistle-blowers, we may be living in a kind of strange, explosive golden age.” Here’s more:

There’s now a self-help book on the topic. Seriously, I give you “The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself”(Lyons, 2011). It’s vastly shrewd and practical, but it also offers an astute long view of American whistle-blowing. Author Stephen Martin Kohn knows about precedents: He’s one of the lawyers who helped procure the biggest whistle-blower reward ever.

Whittemore mixes overviews of the topic with personal accounts:

Then there’s Cynthia Cooper, a vice president of internal audit for WorldCom, who in 2002 harnessed a team of accountants that worked clandestinely to uncover the company’s $3.8 billion in fraud (the biggest in US history up to that time). Her “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower” (Wiley, 2008) jumps (not always successfully) between her WorldCom experience and the moral upbringing that created a whistle-blower “decision by decision, and brick by brick.”

Most Americans aren’t happy with their jobs…and their bosses

Timothy Egan, blogging for the New York Times, writes about “an exhaustive and depressing” Gallup study indicating that American workers are seriously unhappy with their workplaces:

Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.

And while lagging pay and benefits have something to do with this state of affairs, the main culprits are bad bosses, who are costing their organizations plenty in lost productivity:

But here’s the surprise: the main factor in workplace discontent is not wages, benefits or hours, but the boss. . . . The survey said there was consistent anger at management types who failed to so much as ask employees about their opinion of the job. Ever.

“The managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” wrote Jim Clifton, the C.E.O. and chairman of Gallup.

Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped?

I hear it a lot from people who have endured bad work experiences: My boss is a psychopath. Indeed, if all such claims were true, there must be a lot of psychopaths in management positions, which should be cause for great concern. After all, psychopaths lack a normal sense of conscience, lie with impunity, and target others for mistreatment.

Those who have been severely bullied at work by their supervisors often invoke the term, while others are dismissive, claiming that simply being a bad or abrasive boss does not make one a psychopath.

But hold on: Maybe the claimed prevalence of psychopath bosses is true, or at least close enough to make us feel darn uncomfortable. This isn’t the first or last word on the topic, but let’s play with some numbers and assessments to get a sense of what we’re talking about:

1. Genuine psychopaths — According to ballpark estimates, 1 percent of the population may be classified as genuine psychopaths.

2. “Almost psychopaths” — Psychiatrist Ronald Schouten (Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital), lead author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012), suggests that maybe 10 to 15 percent of the population almost meets the definition of psychopathy. As reported here last fall:

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates.

3. Drawn to management — A 2010 study by leading psychopathy researchers Paul Babiak, Craig Neumann, and Robert Hare documented higher measures of psychopathy for managers. The Boston Globe‘s Kevin Lewis summarized the study:

One of the authors of the study was hired by companies to evaluate managers — mostly middle-aged, college-educated, white males — for a management development program. It turns out that these managers scored higher on measures of psychopathy than the overall population, and some who had very high scores were candidates for, or held, senior positions. . . . The authors conclude that “the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.”

Do the math

Okay, so let’s combine the 1 percent of the population of genuine psychopaths, Schouten’s 10-15 percent of the population of “almost psychopaths,” and evidence correlating higher presence of psychopathic traits among those in management positions.

Conclusion: Based on this reasoning, it’s fair to suggest that some 15 percent or more of bosses fit the psychopath or almost psychopath profile. In other words, between 1 of 6 and 1 of 7 bosses may behave in a manner that causes underlings and other co-workers to think of them as psychopaths.

That makes for a lot of Sunday night and Monday morning anxieties…

Working Notes: Kennemer on firing bad bosses, Rutgers fires an abusive coach, and more

Some interesting items that may catch your fancy:

1. 7 Good Reasons to Fire a Bad Boss — Kevin Kennemer of The People Group cites seven reasons why bad bosses should be terminated. Here’s No. 6:

Bad bosses create toxic work environments, jeopardize employee health. Employees who are stuck working for a bad boss are more susceptible to chronic stress, depression, anxiety, strokes and heart attacks.

Kevin is an HR guy who gets it: Bad bosses are bad for business. The ones who can’t or won’t change should be shown the door. It’s about productivity and dignity.

2. Rutgers fires head men’s basketball coach — Public outcry basically forced Rutgers University to terminate basketball coach Mike Rice when videotape documenting his repeated verbally and physically abusive treatment of players during practices went viral. ESPN reports:

Rutgers fired basketball coach Mike Rice on Wednesday after a videotape aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players and using gay slurs during practice.

The videotape, broadcast Tuesday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” prompted sharp criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and the head of the New Jersey Assembly called for Rice to be fired.

With mounting criticism on a state and national level, the school relieved Rice of his duties after three largely unsuccessful seasons at the Big East school. There will be a national search to replace him.

Rutgers does not come out looking good on this one. It imposed only light discipline on Rice when these events first became known several months ago. Now there’s talk of relieving the Athletic Director and even the university President.

3. Medical intern not covered by Wisconsin whistle blower law — The state’s Court of Appeals held that an unpaid medical intern was not protected by a whistle blower law for workers in healthcare fields. Bruce Vielmetti reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A psychologist who was fired after reporting ethical breaches at the Medical College of Wisconsin has no claim for unlawful retaliation because she was an unpaid intern, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

But in a sharp dissent, one judge called the decision Orwellian and that “Sadly …exiles health-care interns beyond the pale of the statute’s protection even though they may have critical information to safeguard

H/t to Intern Labor Rights for providing yet another reason to support the emerging movement against unpaid internships.

4. Paula Parnagian on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill — Paula Parnagian, an organizational consultant and principal of World View Services, wrote a terrific piece for NEHRA Insights, the magazine of the Northeast Human Resources Association.

Here she quotes attorney Ellen Cobb of The Isoceles Group, an international consulting firm and author of Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress: Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues (2012), a comprehensive global summary of relevant laws:

Not that long ago, sexual harassment was accepted as part of what happened in the workplace. It isn’t anymore — it still occurs, but less, and public perception has changed. The view of bullying may well be on this course.

5. APA launches Center for Organizational Excellence — The American Psychological Association has created a new Center for Organizational Excellence, an outgrowth of its popular Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP).  Dr. David Ballard, founder of the PHWP, is the founding Center director. Here’s a brief description from the Center’s website:

The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence works to enhance the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.

This is an exciting initiative. I’ll be writing more about the Center’s work in future posts.

6. NPR gives thumb up to the new “Mad Men” season — “Mad Men,” the AMC drama set in the high stakes advertising game of 1960s Manhattan, isn’t just about work (not by a longshot), but it sure does give us a fascinating interpretation of the business world back in the day. If you want to get the full story, you need to start from Season 1 and go from there. But for loyal viewers, NPR’s David Bianculli tells us that Season 6 has been worth waiting for:

Now we come to the spring TV season — which, as in nature, is a time to rejoice in the spirit of rebirth. . . . And best of all, there’s AMC’s Mad Men,which begins Season 6 on Sunday, delivering all the pleasures that today’s most ambitious drama series can bring.

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