Good performer, bad manager, ugly situation

The first job I ever had was working as a stock boy after school and on weekends at a national grocery store chain. The one memory that stands out above all others was that I had a bad manager.

Today, he wouldn’t be employed based on the way he used to pinch the female cashiers and tell lewd jokes. However, it wasn’t just his inappropriate behaviour that was so bothersome but rather that he bullied and intimidated everyone. Interestingly, he was held in high esteem by the company’s senior management because he managed a profitable and efficient operation.

You’d like to believe that this kind of thinking has disappeared over the years, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Although the disagreeable behaviour of bad managers may be done in a more politically correct way today, it continues to exist and in many cases is overlooked by senior management when good bottom-line performance is achieved — even if it is short term.

The reality is that there are many bad bosses that make life miserable for their employees, their own managers and ultimately themselves. Interestingly, they usually don’t realize the effect they are having on those around them. This insensitivity is one reason why many organizations end up with ugly situations.

Ugly situations present themselves in a number of ways. Some, such as a lack of camaraderie, are relatively benign and are not easily recognizable by people outside the immediate department or company.

Other times, the situation is exemplified by dysfunctional behaviour that can lead to court cases that ruin careers. Or when frustrated and mistreated subordinates resort to sabotage that damages a company’s position in the marketplace and endangers the public’s safety and well being. In extreme cases, it’s led to workplace violence because of abuse an employee has been put through.

Usually the ugly situation is only viewed in the context of the present. The unfortunate assumption is that when the “bad boss” is removed the ugly situation will disappear. This may not be the case. The former bad boss may have recruited or promoted bad employees, mirror images of himself. The organization is plagued with a problem that works like a cancer, where one bad cell spreads and afflicts the department, plant or company.

What is a bad manager?
Management is about getting things done through people, not by people. This seems to be a small nuance, but it is often the difference between a good and a bad boss. The person who works with staff to accomplish the goals and objectives of the department or company is seen as a good boss while the individual that dictates and gives orders is frequently seen as a bad boss.

But beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, and so is the perception of what is a good or bad manager. There is no common agreement and the estimation of good and bad management often changes with the context.

For instance, in an economic downturn, total attention is focused on an organization’s bottom line. Managers take whatever action they believe necessary to improve the company’s profits, without considering the effect on employees.

Stanley Bing, a columnist with Fortune magazine, describes the situation beautifully: “A sadist who makes his sales projections is more valuable to senior management and its stockholders than is a solid human being who misses his numbers by two per cent.”

If they don’t take this approach, they’re criticized by senior management or stockholders for not being decisive enough and are labeled as poor managers. However in the eyes of their employees the latter approach would label them as a good boss because of the humanity and understanding they displayed.

One definition of a bad manager is someone who is perceived to abuse subordinates by any one of a number of different behaviours. However a person that subordinates consider a bad manager, may in fact be considered a good manager by senior management as long as he is achieving his bottom-line objectives.

Many reasons for bad managers
Poor selection is a prime reason for the existence of bad managers. If an organization has a record of making poor hiring decisions, it’s not surprising that they make poor promotion decisions; a promotion is only another form of hiring.

Using past experience as the primary criteria for selection of a candidate can contribute to poor recruiting. Many managerial candidates are available for hire as a result of being unable to perform as a manager in a previous organization. However given that they have some management experience they pass too easily through the selection filter.

Still, in some cases, managers are perceived to be bad bosses because they have inherited bad situations. Subordinates that are accustomed to lax management will paint a new boss who uses a disciplined approach as a tyrant with a draconian management style. Senior managers will assume the new incumbent is not doing a good job since they’re having to face a barrage of complaints about the new manager.

Conversely, a tightly controlled department may find a new manager who does a lot of delegating to be lazy and unwilling to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The result can be a workforce that perceives the manager as being uncommitted to achieving the department’s goals.

The lack of fit can be a critical issue in the perception of whether a manager is a good boss or not. A number of years ago, an HR department in a large manufacturing company had a well-liked director. He had the ability to deal firmly and successfully with the union and was well supported by colleagues and employees. He left to pursue a new opportunity.

His replacement was a staid and reserved individual who brought a good track record from another well-known organization. Unfortunately his style was in drastic contrast from that of his predecessor. Everyone treated him as an outsider and the strain that this created could be seen in his appearance. His reaction was defensive and accented his pedantic management style. He was labeled a bad boss. Sadly, one morning his staff was greeted with the announcement that this “bad boss” had taken his life. One wonders how much the stress of not fitting into his job contributed to his tragic action.

Who should identify bad managers?
In those instances where a “bad manager” is promoted from the ranks because of good performance, the task of identifying him as a bad manager becomes very difficult. In all likelihood a senior member of management has championed his promotion. As a result they probably have a vested interest in the individual’s success as a manager, regardless of the person’s managerial performance. They will be disinclined to take quick and decisive action if there is a problem.

In other cases, senior management may feel the manager is doing a good job, particularly if the department is achieving its objectives. They may attribute allegations from subordinates that he is a “bad boss” as unfounded griping by underachievers — in some cases this assessment may very well be correct.

If there are individuals who feel they should have been promoted in a particular situation, senior management may assume that allegations of poor management are nothing more than “sour grapes.”

As a result of these complications, the task of identifying bad managers frequently finds its way to the desk of the HR professional.

The existence of the problem often comes to HR’s attention through informal channels. Frequently the information HR has to deal with is anecdotal and subject to more than one interpretation.

At this point a serious problem may arise. On one hand senior management supports the “bad boss” on the other the HR professional is anxious to eliminate the “bad boss” issue.

A successful resolution depends to a large part on management’s perception of the HR function and for that matter, HR’s own perception of its own role.

If HR sees itself as an ombudsman office for the organization’s employees, the conflict between HR and management may be significant. Without measurable examples of poor management on the part of the “bad boss” the HR leader’s warnings will likely be ignored.

Even in cases where HR can conclusively show that the “bad boss” is doing a poor job, warnings may be ignored if operating management can show that the “bad boss” is accomplishing goals and objectives.

It’s divergent perspectives like this that give rise to the common perception that management deals with reality while HR deals with Utopia. The real issue is probably that the former is dealing with this month’s bottom line while HR is looking at situations from a long-term perspective.

Satisfactorily resolving this disunity is vital to the health of the organization. For HR to be effective, it is imperative that it exhibits business acumen and recognize the divergent motivations that may exist between management and employees. If HR is perceived as primarily being the spokesperson for employees, bad boss issues will not be resolved until a crisis occurs.

What usually happens?
When there is some question about a manager’s performance, employees will complain in a covert fashion. They will be inclined to undercut and disparage all actions suggested by the manager in question and some, although relatively few, will leave the organization.

Senior management is normally inclined to keep and tolerate; even if they recognize a bad situation exists they will be prone to work around the bad manager’s shortcomings as long as the person meets targets.

The HR leader will probably complain to senior management about the intolerable management taking place, push for immediate action and likely predict that without it calamity will strike the organization as quality employees leave in a mass exodus.

Senior management sets the tone
To be successful over the long term, all people in an organization must be treated with respect. It will not be sufficient to just decree this as a corporate value, senior management must act as role models.

This will be difficult to do if a bad manager is in the midst of their senior management group. Such a situation can occur when a long-term, high-performing individual, who has moved up the corporate ladder by stellar performance, performs poorly as boss.

Senior management needs to be intimately involved in the hiring and promotion process at all levels of management. They have a responsibility to provide input on the qualities that management recruits must possess. A company can’t afford to recruit candidates who have not been thoroughly evaluated on their ability to manage.

Senior management must also be prepared to objectively investigate any allegations of bad management. Depending on the position of the manager and the size of the organization, senior management may want to personally carry out the investigation. This will signal to managers and employees that abusive management, even from high performers, will not be tolerated.

In those cases where “bad managers” are identified, senior management needs to advise them that their behaviour will not be tolerated. Excuses that their behaviour is necessary to maintain discipline and control to achieve productivity goals are unacceptable.

It is important that clear-cut objectives are set for all managers, particularly new ones. Treatment of employees must be included in both the performance management and variable compensation programs, and must have the same weighting as other more traditional bottom-line goals.

HR manages the situation
Once a “bad boss” is in place, it may be too late for HR. Corrective action seldom occurs until the offending individual’s manager is convinced there is a problem. The exception is when the problem is so extreme the matter comes to the attention of senior management.

HR is effective if it is able to put in place guidelines for all management appointments. This needs to be done when there are no appointments being considered or alternatively, immediately after an ugly management situation has been resolved and everyone is sensitive to the problems that can occur.

HR must ensure all stakeholders clearly understand what is considered good management performance. It is important that a review is conducted and consensus achieved before filling each and every management vacancy to ensure that everyone continues to be in agreement on the criteria.

A thorough review of the proposed new manager’s background and performance reviews should be carried out prior to any appointment. If the individual has never managed before, it may be advantageous to conduct some psychological evaluation. Particular attention needs to be paid to the teams the person has performed on and other inter-personal relationships.

Many organizations assume that because an individual is a good performer and is expert in a functional area of the business, they will make a good manager. As a result, senior management appoints the person into a management position and leaves them to their own devices. Little management training is provided.

One of the problems with this approach is that individuals respond differently to the experiences they face and learning at their own unique pace. On the one hand there are individuals that learn tasks and responsibilities quickly but their rate of growth decreases as the challenges they face increase in complexity. Since they are fast learners they may be promoted at an early stage of their career. However, if they cannot continue to learn quickly from interpersonal experiences they may be perceived as poor managers. The way they respond to such pressure may in turn make them into bad bosses.

On the other hand, some individuals have greater natural management ability and although they may not be the flashy stars when dealing with personal responsibilities they may excel at learning from experiences as the scope of responsibilities expand and relationships become more complex.

Ideally, potential management candidates should be identified well before the time they are promoted, and management training, as well as personality testing, should be provided.

The HR leader must see that management performance is an integral part of each performance review. The performance management program should be structured as a contract between the new manager and the person to whom they report. The manager’s role is to learn to manage, and the supervisor’s role to coach and mentor.

HR should identify which style of management will fit best with the new manager’s environment. If the new manager demonstrates a different style of management than the one previously used in the unit, then HR needs to develop a communication program. The subordinate group needs to know that there is going to be a change in the way that they’re going to be managed and that senior management is supporting this change.

The existence of “bad bosses” is a bane to organizations and has been for generations. The situation is made more difficult if the individual boss is, or has been, an outstanding performer.

With the market’s current demand that organizations show better performance quarter by quarter, general management is under pressure to achieve results in the short term. This pressure is a contributor to the “bad boss” syndrome. It rewards the good performer and discourages the spending of resources on developing management talent. This presents a dilemma for HR since it inherently maintains a long-term perspective.

If HR is going to achieve its goal to become an integral part of the strategic decision-making process, it must be seen as having business acumen. Harping on the shortcomings of “bad bosses” who are providing good bottom-line results will not be seen as a realistic approach to the realities of the business.

The HR leader must first develop and sell a recruiting strategy that prevents inappropriate individuals from being put in management positions in the first place. Good all-round managers must be developed so that their performance is recognized as being outstanding. Metrics must be provided to senior management showing that the apparent good bottom-line results being achieved by the “bad boss” are short term and superficial and do not take into account the cost on human resources.

For senior management with long-term plans to run a successful organization, it means waking up to the fact that good performers can make bad managers.

Fred Pamenter is managing partner with Pamenter, Pamenter, Brezer and Deganis Limited, a Toronto-based HR consulting and executive search firm. He may be contacted at (416) 620-5980 or [email protected].

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