Bad Economy, Bad Boss

In a bad economy and a tough job market, it is the top talent – the people you most want to stay – who go. And what is the No. 1 reason given in exit interviews for leaving a company? Bad boss. People leave bosses more than companies.

Some leaders get distracted and others assume that they can take liberties since it’s hard for employees to find another job. Add tightened budgets for executive development and you get the perfect breeding ground for bad bosses.

It is easy to point a finger at the boss. Bosses do not fare well in either literature or the media. Our images of the boss range from the pointy-haired imbecile of the Dilbert comic strip to Steve Carrel in TV’s “The Office.”

But bad bosses are not necessarily bad people. Most of them are not the miscreants who think it’s OK to yell and scream, nor are they the stereotypical dunces we see on TV. They are successful businesspeople who have raised themselves to managerial or executive ranks but who have left much of their leadership potential unused or underdeveloped.

And the worst part is that they rarely realize what has happened. Marshall Goldsmith describes this in his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”  There comes a point where we top out if we cease to grow or if we come to depend on a managerial style that’s no longer effective or not sustainable.

The single best way to find out how your leadership style is affecting performance is to look in the mirror – hard. The single biggest complaint about bad bosses is that they are impervious to feedback and unaware of their contribution to organizational and productivity challenges. Bad bosses are not usually the buffoons we see caricatured in the media, but they’re often unaware of their impact.

So what can a leader do? Here is my list of the top three steps toward becoming a better boss:

  1. Ask, but ask well. A feedback request that is not perceived as either sincere or safe will not generate much useful data and will create mistrust. A genuine, open-minded request and attentive listening are better. Or you can use a 360 feedback process or instrument to get more structured information. But confidential 360 feedback has a down side as well. Be certain that the 360 is not an excuse to avoid potentially uncomfortable conversations. The anonymity of a 360 can be a safe starting place, but it needs to lead to the kind of courageous and genuine conversation that builds both trust and productivity.
  2. Beware of hubris. The best leaders are lifelong learners and fiercely dedicated to their own growth and development. When was the last time you invested in your own leadership development? It’s not uncommon for me to see organizations where the boss wants to make investments in leadership development for “the team” but does not want to participate personally.

I worked in one organization where I did in-depth 360 work for four executives, and each of them reported concerns about the boss’ leadership style and its impact on them. But the boss declined when they suggested that he might want to go through the same 360 process. His answer was that he “did that a number of years ago and it was very useful. I do not need to repeat the process.”

John Naisbitt said it well when he described quality circles as the ideal tool for U.S. managerial style. They are “an activity that executives can tell middle managers to have supervisors do with the workforce, but never have to participate themselves.”

  1. Participate in a committee or team that you do not manage. Sometimes, especially at the top, we forget what it is to exercise influence muscles. Because a leader at the top of an organization ultimately calls the shots, it’s easy to lose the relationship skills that build influence rather than exert authority. Environments that, on a regular basis, require far more peer interactions than direct report relationships can help a leader reinforce influence and communications skills.
Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 9, 2011.