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  • Mike Donoghue

Horrible Bosses

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

I was meeting a client yesterday and in the elevator, on the way to their floor I glanced up and saw a headline on the elevator screen, it read that abusive bosses can cause trauma which last 3 to 5 years after the abuse stops. This got me thinking about my previous bosses; though I won't be mentioning names or putting a league table of good to bad. The spectrum was wide and ranged from relationships where country managers encouraged and promoted my ideas and efforts leading to sponsoring intra-company moves to help my career, to statements such as " there is a company memory and you will never hold another leadership role in this company" because I refused to do their bidding. I know which bosses got the best of my efforts and how I felt when I had to discuss operational issues with the not-so-great ones.

After reading the screen I thought why do companies tolerate such negative behaviours, when it has such a negative impact on the overall performance of the company's bottom line. Also what drives a toxic boss to behave in such ways and how to handle toxic bosses from a company perspective, here are a few things I have always believed and a few things that I found out.

The cost to a company and industries

An article by Brandie Wiekle for CBC News indicated that ~40% of employees will leave their current job due to bad management, apply this statistic to a few other data points such as a survey of 210 CEOs by Harvard Business School estimated that typical mid-level managers require 6 months to reach their Breakeven Point. Or that it takes around 42 days to hire a replacement costing typically $4000 (Source: Society for Human Resource Management). One more data point from Gallup shows companies who score high on employee engagement are typically 21% more profitable.

What makes a toxic boss, well toxic!

I had a senior manager who would often repeat the phrase no one comes to work looking to do a bad job. This was quite funny because the same manager had no awareness of their toxic impact on the teams they were responsible for. Whilst they managed to control their temper, they nevertheless enjoyed bullying and belittling through passive-aggressive statements and selective recognition. Am I the only person to have experienced this? Honestly, mine was fairly easy and I shrugged it off most days, however, there were others where veiled threats about my future with the company hit home and subsequently went home causing me to brood on the statements for days.

Perhaps a more famous example of a toxic boss. would be President Lyndon B. Johnson who followed a recognized pattern of abusive behaviour. One where there would be an abusive episode, such as open physical aggression or making unreasonable demands and coercion followed by an attempt at "making amends" and showing contrition on the realization he had gone too far. This can be seen in most toxic bosses and attempts at "Faking Amends" is an effort to conceal the abusive behaviour and keep the coercive control.

To bring this example and just about every other instance of toxic boss behaviours under an umbrella; they are just behaviours, and as such with the exception of the 1% of the population who have sociopathic tendencies they are learned behaviours. A study by Albert Bandura at Stanford University titled Social Cognitive Conditioning supported the work of BF Skinner's Operant Conditioning where Antecedent - Behaviour - Consequence, produce results in behaviour dependent on whether an individual has a positive consequence or a negative consequence for responding (Behaviour) to a stimulus (Antecedent). Bandura argued, an observer must pay attention to the modelled behaviour, remember the behaviour, and be motivated to reproduce it. If the consequence supports the abusive behaviour, it is more likely to be repeated. by the observer. However, it requires an organizational culture that is willing to tolerate and encourage the behaviour for the toxic bosses' behaviour to take root.

What to do about Toxic Bosses

In a previous blog, I posted on organizational justice- I discussed how important this aspect of leadership is to the health of an organization. The concept of organizational justice was introduced by Jerald Greenberg in 1987, Academy of Management Review, A Taxonomy of Organizational Justice Theories. The concept was rooted in equity theory which in a broader context is how many of us view the world in which we live and work. A key pillar of organizational justice is the application of interactional justice, which has two elements these are informational justice and interpersonal justice. Both speak about treating people with dignity, respect, and sensitivity. It doesn’t mean hard decisions are avoided it means people are supported through the impact of the decisions that need to be made. Although from a toxic boss's perspective Interpersonal justice is probably the one aspect that has the greatest and longest-lasting impact and most likely results in the 3 to 5 years of ongoing trauma. It focuses on supporting employees through issues and the outcomes of the decisions rather than treating employees as "wooden chess pieces" to be moved around and exploited with little thought for their psychological safety

It ultimately requires that as a leader, supervisor or manager you display empathy, humility and emotional intelligence. All three traits can be learned however as with all skills and behaviours it has to start with recognition of the gap between where you are, and where you need to get to. This could also support the rehabilitation of toxic bosses. By establishing the structure of organizational justice within the company senior leadership can set the expectations of acceptable leadership, however, to borrow a phrase from Jack Daly, "You need to inspect what you expect". Setting cultural expectations and communicating the culture of healthy supportive leadership also needs systems and processes to ensure it can be upheld. Without check-ins and pathways to course-correct unhealthy leadership behaviours, toxic behaviours can take root.

Consideration to how good leadership is recognized and toxic behaviours are driven out of the organization should have the same energy that some industries have applied to Health and Safety policies. Would it be such a bad thing that anonymous toxic leadership reporting could be adopted in organizations, or to go a step further that leading and lagging performance indicators are used to drive the correct leadership behaviours the same way that they are used in the rest of the organization, "What gets measured gets managed" -Peter Drucker.

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