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Are You a Nightmare to Work For?

(This post was written by Amy Gallo for our Finance and Strategy Practice.)

In CEB View’s last Talent Matters post we discussed how difficult it is to work for a bad boss. But what if, instead of working for one, you are one?

Of course it’s not easy being the boss. Research from CEB’s CLC Human Resources program shows that the three areas that most managers – even great ones – struggle with are evaluating employee performance, providing effective feedback, and turning around underperformance. These are hard things to do and because the way you do them directly affects your team, any missteps are likely to create friction.

Fortunately, the recession seems to have improved many employee-manager relationships but boss-bashing is still a favorite pastime (as proved by last week’s traffic on the first “bad boss” piece). So, how do you know if your employees are just letting off steam or if you are truly difficult to work with? Unfortunately, many bad bosses are the last to know how awful they are to work under. This may be because you aren’t getting the feedback you need, you’re disconnected from your employees or you just aren’t watching out for the signs.

Here are five indications that you may be a worse boss than you thought:

  1. Meetings happen without you: If you notice that your employees are getting together to talk about work and not including you, there may be a problem. When employees don’t believe a manager is competent or cares about their work, they are likely to find ways to work around him.
  2. Problems blow up before you hear about them: Employees feel comfortable going to good bosses when there is a conflict or an issue because they don’t fear retribution. If you haven’t signaled that you are a partner in solving problems, or worse that you will punish people who bring them to you, you are going to be the last to hear when something negative happens. This greatly hinders your ability to handle problems early on before they become disasters.
  3. You don’t know what your employees care about or enjoy doing: What motivates employees is not the same across the board. To inspire your people to go above and beyond, you have to get to know them through open and honest conversations. Struggling managers are often too consumed with themselves to learn more about their people.
  4. Your people don’t know where they stand: If you are one of those bosses that complain that your employees are insecure and always asking for your input or approval, ask yourself why they might be behaving that way. All people need effective feedback to do their jobs well. Good bosses don’t hesitate or neglect to tell employees whether they are performing well. Leaving your people in the dark will only lead to disengagement and confusion about what you want them to do.
  5. No one disagrees with you: Sometimes the worst bosses just assume everything is going well. They don’t hear about any problems and everyone seems to agree with every brilliant idea they have. It may be less that you are a genius and more that they are terrified of you. Open disagreement is a sign of a healthy and innovative work environment. If everyone is standing around nodding, it’s time to take a hard look at your leadership.

What To Do If It’s You

If you recognize any of these signs in yourself or have come up with a few of your own, don’t despair. Even the worst boss is capable of change. Here are some things you can do to begin the process:

  • Ask for feedback: Good bosses are open to and regularly ask for feedback. Your first step should be to ask people for input on how you manage. If you’ve signaled in the past that you are not open to hearing people’s honest opinions, you will need to make clear that you are trying to change your ways and that you intend to use their input not to punish them but to inform your own development. It may be possible even with a mea culpa, that your people won’t tell you what you need to hear. In these cases, it might be helpful to hire an executive coach who can gather feedback to share anonymously with you. Be prepared — you may hear some nasty things about yourself. Listen to what people have to say before you respond. While it may sting, negative feedback is just as useful as compliments.
  • Make a visible commitment to change. Research shows that those who go public with their goals are much more likely to succeed. Don’t keep your resolution to yourself. Explain to your team that you are working on becoming a better boss and exactly what that means. Are you going to start giving regular feedback to employees so they know where you stand? Are you going to hold “office hours” so employees feel comfortable talking to you about work problems as they arise? Tell them what success will look like for you and ask them to keep you accountable.
  • Request help. This can often be the hardest part for bosses. It’s one thing to admit you’re underperforming, it’s another to ask for support from others. Think about what you need to change your behavior — training on how to assess employee performance, coaching on how to have difficult conversations, regular check-ins with your boss — and figure how who can best provide that —your peers, your boss or an internal or external coach. Sustaining change can be especially difficult so enlist a few people to tell you when you’ve gotten off track. Be sure to pick those who are willing to tell you the truth.

SEC Members, check out our Talent Development Topic Center for our best tools and insights on coaching and developing managers in sales.

Comments from the Network (1)

  1. Tony Jones
    on January 27, 2011

    I would add that “Know Thyself” is a very important principle for managers. Our experience as consultants is that a lack of honest and realistic self-awareness is a key component in many ineffective managers. This can result from a variety of factors. One is the common habit of promoting people to management positions who are strong solo performers in a function – e.g. selling. But soloists often lack the empathy and team-building skills required for effective management of others in the function. They also lack the patience required for coaching. They typically do not find their reward from seeing others succeed, being more interested in their own success. These people don’t make good managers.

    A second cause is that poor managers have often been poorly managed themselves. They may have been bullied into delivering results, for example. Like other primates, we tend to learn by watching and by doing; we tend to “do what we know”, unless we are very self-aware. A previous boss may have made this worse by failing to provide candid feedback on strengths and weaknesses – especially interpersonal ones. Objective measurement and feedback on Communication Style – and the willingness to receive it – is an essential component in improving a manager’s effectiveness.

    Lastly, there’s a component not often talked about – courage. Managers need to be brave enough to deliver difficult news to an underperformer; to take a stand on important issues of integrity; to deflect undue pressure from above; to hold the company to promises it has made but finds it inconvenient to keep. In short, there is no room for weasels in the ranks of effective managers.

    We could go on for days, but we have to make a living!

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