Manager mishaps: 3 ways HR can help

Play to managers’ strengths to help them become better bosses

Bad bosses — it’s easy enough to recognize them. There are those who scream and chastise people working with them; those who have to control everything; those who are totally disengaged and who in turn disengage their teams; those focused only on results, ignoring the human beings around them; and those who are new kids on the block who don’t know how to spell the word leadership.

From a certain perspective, it’s easy to see why there are bad bosses in the workplace. According to the Leadership Forecast 2005-2006, Best Practices for Tomorrow’s Global Leaders, an international study by DDI, managers and their colleagues in HR have conflicting goals. Line managers are most concerned with “delivering the numbers,” managing customer relationships and cost control. HR managers are focused on developing employee talent. Consider the pressure organizations place on leaders to produce, or to do more with less, and it’s no wonder a certain number of managers fail to live up to the task.

Employees don’t need to field these problems alone. There are ways HR can help with three common challenging boss scenarios.

Results, results, results

The results-obsessed senior manager loves the “deep financial analysis.” He harbours a passion for numbers and gets shivers when calculating financial ratios or discussing the value of money in preparation for a merger or acquisition. What he has little enthusiasm for is cultivating a relationship with his people. He may be difficult to find when it’s time to complete performance reviews, share feedback with direct reports or establish a development plan. He does not support the 360-degree feedback process, and most certainly will be the last person to address any conflict brewing between his team members.

HR can play a critical role with this manager. Since this boss has a passion for results, begin at the source of his energy, and help him recognize that what drives results is the highly effective staff in his organization. Ask him to compare the really good employees and the not-so-good ones and consider what they are doing differently.

Don’t undermine the importance of results. Instead, help him make the link between employees’ behaviour and performance. From there, steer him in the direction of his role as a leader and help him see how coaching can help employees acquire and apply the proper behaviour to get the right results. An HR manager can initiate a conversation on those particular instances when a leader can contribute to team performance and on ways team performance drives the bottom line.

The new kid on the block

This newcomer boss is typically found in situations where an organization promotes its technically most competent employee to front-line management, without assessing first if the person has the right motivational fit and leadership skills. If the motivations are there, then HR can help prepare such leaders for their new roles.

This new kid on the block first needs to understand the difference between an individual contributor and a leader, as well as the importance of “performing through others.” He also needs to be clear about expectations — both on the business side and on the people side. Once he has clear objectives in hand, HR can help him understand how he can meet these objectives with the team.

Because of the many changes in his role, this can be one of the most difficult transitions a manager makes in his career. A new manager may not be aware of how his interactions and behaviour affect the entire team, nor how coaching and reinforcing performance will build trust and increase individual effectiveness. HR can help build this awareness. And once he has acquired a foundation of such skills, he can continue building on it with assessment tools that help identify areas of weakness and appropriate development actions.

Warning: Bully boss stay away

It’s a very fortunate HR department that never has to meet one of these cases: the leader who verbally abuses the people around him.

He may be playing “the right game” — kissing up and kicking down, and getting results with an iron fist. But his behaviour is also creating damage throughout the organization. Consider the senior VP, responsible for stock trading and treasury activities in a financial institution, who loses his temper publicly and frequently. He yells at people across the trading floor, loses his temper when the market goes down and traders lose money on deals, pressuring and embarrassing other leaders in the team to get results and projects done faster.

This is a more complicated leader to approach, but HR departments don’t have to take this type of behaviour sitting down. Start by gathering facts to understand when the leader is abusive, what he says or does and with whom and with what consequences. These need to be concrete examples. As one example does not constitute a trend, HR managers need to see a few that illustrate the behaviour pattern.

With these examples in hand, the HR professional should, tactfully, approach the leader to discuss the behaviour pattern. This is obviously a delicate conversation because the leader may either totally reject the “accusations” to protect himself, or turn on the HR professional in the same way he does with others. Focus on the consequences, including high turnover, burnout, unmet business objectives and the total lack of trust. The more HR can share examples and ask questions about the consequences of his behaviour, the more likely it is to get his attention.

Stay calm and do not take his reactions or comments personally. Remind him that HR is there to help and contribute to his success, and stay focused on the behaviour patterns that have been observed. As an effective way to build trust between you and him, ask questions about the typical situations that make him lose his temper and why those situations make him react this way. Ask him what he can do differently.

Getting the person to recognize something must be done or at least to show some openness to the issue is already a big win. From there HR becomes more of a counsellor, helping him identify how he can react differently and discussing actions he could take to calm himself when he thinks he will lose his temper. Role-play with him to help him find alternative approaches whenever he urgently needs to get something done.

But let’s be realistic. Not all bully bosses will suddenly agree to discuss their behaviour, partly because HR is a threat to them and partly because they don’t think their behaviour is problematic. After trying more than once with no success, bring the issue to the bully’s boss to raise the seriousness of the inappropriate behaviour and the consequences to the organization.

If the bully’s manager and HR are not taking action, it means both are sanctioning this type of behaviour, leading to the same pattern of behaviour in other pockets of the organization.

Bad bosses don’t have to be a part of an organization. HR can keep bad-boss behaviour from becoming part of the organization’s culture by identifying the causes and working with problematic individuals to find a solution. HR will be making a significant contribution and receive appreciation from numerous people — sometimes even from the bad bosses themselves.

Jocelyn Bérard is a managing director at DDI Canada. He may be reached at [email protected].

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