‘Problem’ managers a big problem: Survey

Lack of training and awareness at root of problem behaviour

An interesting aspect of HR is that much of it is delivered through managers. Previous surveys have pointed out that this can present real challenges for HR professionals. HR professionals are often called upon to "clean up the mess" left behind by less than competent or less than ethical managers — messes brought about by managers who bully, harass, mishandle terminations and make inappropriate comments. In some cases, the actions of these problem managers can lead to grievances and litigation.

In an effort to find out how much a problem these managers pose, Canadian HR Reporter and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) surveyed 793 HR professionals as part of the monthly Pulse Survey series.

‘Problem’ managers a big problem: Survey

Problem” managers are a big problem for HR professionals but many organizations will tolerate bad behaviour as long as the manager delivers results, according to the latest Pulse Survey.

“They can cause a huge amount of trouble,” said Mary Ann Beaton, a principal at consulting firm Mary Ann Beaton and Associates in Waterdown, Ont. “They can cause lawsuits, cost money and cause employee morale problems.”

Problem managers are a “big” or “huge” problem for 73 per cent of the 793 Canadian HR Reporter readers and Human Resources Professionals Association members surveyed.

The majority (52.5 per cent) of respondents say about one in 10 managers fall into the problem manager category, while only 14 per cent say these managers are just one in 100 and 1.4 per cent say they are one in 1,000.

“I don’t think they’re anywhere near the majority,” said Beaton. “I think managers are trying to do their best.”

Even if there aren’t that many of them, dealing with problem managers can take up most of an executive’s time, said Scott Whyte, CEO at Kingston Regional Pet Hospital in Kingston, Ont.

“That’s probably the biggest issue when it comes to managing people,” he said. “The troublesome ones cause about 90 per cent of the work.”

For Lianne Landry, senior HR manager at Keane Canada in Halifax, about 30 to 40 per cent of her time is spent either cleaning up after problem managers or educating them.

These managers are most likely to cause problems by making inappropriate comments, according to 73.7 per cent of respondents, followed by demonstrating favouritism (70.1 per cent) and being unwilling to follow due process (63.1 per cent).

They also cause problems by not dealing with issues or complaints as they arise, so by the time a complaint makes its way up the chain of command, the problem has become worse, said Landry.

“They don’t recognize poor behaviour or they turn a blind eye to poor behaviour,” she said. “This causes numerous problems in terms of their productivity and meeting their deliverables.”

More than one-half of respondents (53.1 per cent) have to talk to problem managers at least once a month about the problems they’re causing.

Sometimes, all it takes is someone pointing out the manager’s problem behaviour, said Whyte.

“Quite often, when I’m talking to these managers, they have no clue that that’s what they’re like,” he said.

Then you need to give them the tools to better manage people, including how to actively listen and not be judgmental when someone comes with an issue or a concern, said Whyte.

But respondents have about a 50-50 chance of getting problem managers to change their behaviour, with 61.3 per cent of respondents saying they are sometimes effective in getting problem managers to change and sometimes not. Only 16.6 per cent are effective most of the time.

It helps to understand the reasons behind problem managers’ behaviour, said Beaton. Most of the time, they’re overwhelmed, overworked, under-supported and many people are promoted to management positions without having the proper people skills or management training, she said.

“They’re constantly in a state of stress and they are creating second-hand stress for the people who work for them,” said Beaton. “Most of them aren’t intending to do harm, they just don’t have the insight or the tools.”

More than one-third (35.2 per cent) of respondents said their organization will tolerate just about any kind of bad behaviour as long as the manager delivers results, while 51 per cent said their organization will tolerate some misbehaviour but will act if it gets too bad and 13.8 per cent don’t tolerate any kind of misbehaviour.

At Keane Canada, the IT services firm is focused on manager education and building stronger managers, said Landry.

“We do really keep an eye on behaviour,” she said.

If an employee expresses a desire to move into a manager role, HR has an in-depth discussion to ensure she understands exactly what management entails and there is a management learning path that covers all management levels, from junior to senior, said Landry.

Problem managers: It doesn’t take many bad apples to spoil the bunch (Analysis)

Organizations often let bad behaviour slide if manager delivers results

By Claude Balthazard

The idea for this latest Pulse Survey came from a response to a previous survey on the increasing litigiousness of employees. It suggested employees may well be more litigious than they used to be, but some employers also have cultures that tolerate managerial misbehaviour. While not a glamorous part of the job, HR professionals are often called upon to “clean up the messes” left behind by less-than-competent or less-than-ethical managers. So how much of a problem are problem managers?

Clearly, they are a significant problem — 45.9 per cent indicated problem managers are a “big” problem and 27.1 per cent indicated they are a “huge” problem. Somewhere between “one in 10” (52.5 per cent) and “more than one in 10” (31.8 per cent) managers fall into the category of problem manager, said respondents.

The most problematic behaviours are inappropriate comments (73.7 per cent), demonstrating favouritism (70.1 per cent), unwillingness to follow due process (63.1 per cent), treating employees with disrespect (61.7 per cent) and bullying or intimidation (57.3 per cent).

Many comments noted the issue is very important because of its strong impact on employee engagement, turnover and the bottom line. It does not take many “bad apples” to have a serious impact on the morale of an organization, noted several respondents, and the incidence of problem managers may be underreported because employees are fearful of reprisals. Some said issues with problem managers can go undetected for a long time, until the issues “blow up.”

The comments suggested there are different kinds of problem managers. On the one hand, there are poorly trained managers or ones promoted to management positions for the wrong reasons. Then again, there are those managers whose values and attitudes are problematic. A number of respondents commented that management training and coaching will be useful in the former case but not in the latter.

It would appear most organizations tolerate a fair amount of managerial misbehaviour — 35.2 per cent indicated their organization will tolerate just about anything if the problem manager delivers results and 51 per cent will tolerate some managerial misbehaviour.

Interestingly, there is a significant correlation between the degree to which an organization tolerates manager misbehaviour and the size of the problem that these managers pose in an organization. Of course, correlation does not mean causality but it does seem reasonable to suggest an organization that will turn a blind eye, or even reward, managerial misbehaviour will experience more of such misbehaviour.

There were also differences of opinion along levels of seniority. Below the middle-management level, 81 per cent thought problem managers were either a big or huge problem whereas at the middle-management or executive levels, 67 per cent thought problem managers were either a big or huge problem.

Clearly, managing the problem has not been easy for many survey respondents. Many related how difficult it was to deal with problem managers when managerial misbehaviour is tolerated by senior management or, worse still, when some senior managers are among the problem managers.

More than one-half (53.2 per cent) indicated having “difficult conversations” with a problem manager at least once a month. On the other hand, respondents were not particularly optimistic in regards to their effectiveness in dealing with managerial misbehaviour. Few respondents felt they were effective always (one per cent) or most of the time (16.6 per cent) while many more respondents felt they were sometimes and sometimes not (61.3 per cent) or rarely (21.1 per cent) effective in dealing with managerial misbehaviour.

Those HR professionals who reported some success in changing managerial behaviour noted the key is not to point out the negative consequences of problem behaviours but rather to convince the problem managers results will be better if they change their ways.

Claude Balthazard is director of HR excellence and registrar at the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].

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