Does Your Organization have a Bosshole Problem?
“What could you have possibly been thinking?! That’s the stupidest idea I’ve heard in a while. Are you kidding me – your job is so simple and this is what you come up with?! I don’t have time for this; I have a real job to do.”
Have you ever witnessed, or been subjected to, this kind of conduct from a peer or supervisor in the workplace? I truly hope not; however, if we look at the research, there’s a decent chance you have. In fact, the 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey found that 60.3 million U.S. workers have been affected by workplace bullying and the majority of those doing the bullying are bosses. Do you believe organizations need people who are “rough around the edges” to shake things up, to drive for excellence? Or are they actually dragging your organization down in the long-term, even if they are a “rainmaker” right now?
Oftentimes, when such disrespectful, unprofessional and dehumanizing behavior is allowed to continue, it’s rationalized by the perpetrator and the leaders who tolerate it. Perhaps it’s the idea that the ends justify the means, “that’s just Johnny,” they needed to shout to get their point across, they close the most sales so their personality must work, or that you need that force, the “rough around the edges” person to challenge the organization and push for innovation.
Being critical and being skeptical can be useful traits to evaluate new ideas or strategies, but does that really need to translate into berating or ridiculing someone else’s contribution? And at what cost? Because there is a cost, whether it’s acknowledged or not. If they are an all-star and are truly that intelligent, can’t they come up with a different way of communicating?
Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant recently did a podcast in his WorkLife series that discussed the effects of “jerks” (although you’ll see he referred to them in a more direct term that would need censored here) in the workplace. Grant referred to two studies that analyze the effects of berating and dehumanizing conduct on others. One experiment done with medical teams found that after being belittled by a “visiting expert,” those teams had almost 20% lower accuracy and 15% less effective procedures. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a 15% less effective surgery! Another study showed that participants had lower cognitive ability after being disrespected by an authority figure relative to those that had a neutral interaction. Those who were berated solved 25% fewer anagrams correctly and even more than that, the negativity spread. The participants also saw someone drop books after their interaction with the authority figure and those who were disrespected were nine times less likely to help – nine times!
What this tells us is that allowing such behavior, regardless of individual contribution, has a cost. It has a detrimental effect on performance, creativity and leaves a lingering negativity. Who would want that contagion spreading around their workplace?
Ultimately, your organization’s culture is built around the worst behavior its leaders allow. And “allow” can mean anything from reward to merely permit without consequence.
There is a significant difference between being demanding and being demeaning. As explained in Grant’s podcast, demanding involves setting high standards and being unwilling to accept work lower than that threshold. Demeaning on the other hand involves devaluing people as human beings and treating others with such disrespect that it can leave them feeling worthless. You can expect (and get) the best performance, but you do it only with respect.
As seen in our post on ROI: Investing in Leadership, there is significant costs associated with “bad bosses.” Jerks are simply bad for business. As Christine Porath discussed in her Ted Talk, incivility makes people less motivated: 66% cut back work efforts, 80% lost time worrying about what happened, and 12% left their job. Porath goes on to explain it’s not just the targets of the jerk’s wrath that suffer, those who witness it have performance decreases as well. Again, demonstrating the contagion of demeaning behavior.
Part of the drop in performance is because individuals stop seeking information due to the “atmosphere of fear” that’s been created. This leads to a lack of effective teamwork and slower, poorer decisions being made. Such behavior leads to dysfunctional workplaces and toxic environments.
If you want your organization to thrive, you need to have effective leaders throughout the organization. In fact, Porath discusses research by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership where they found that the number one reason executives failed was due to an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style. At the very top can be the hardest to address but this can be where a professional corporate coach, mentor, peers or boards may need to step in. If it’s toxic at the top, it will be incredibly difficult to stop it from trickling down and poisoning the entire organization.
Even with positions lower than the CEO, it can be tough to confront strong personalities to address inappropriate behavior. But that’s part of the job. It can be difficult, especially with repeat offenders, but assume you don’t know what their intentions were in a particular situation. What needs addressed is the outward behavior, you don’t know the internal causes. Therefore, you can give them the benefit of the doubt, explain the impact and the expectations going forward. For example, don’t say “I don’t know why you feel the need to _____” but rather, separate the intentions behind their actions (because honestly, you aren’t a mind reader) and focus instead on addressing the impact it has on others. After they’ve been warned and future expectations set, they either choose to shape up or move out.
To be clear, this is not to say that all employees need to be coddled. It is, however, marking a significant distinction between treating people like fellow human beings and not. Below are a few elements to consider that can be explicitly or implicitly setting expectations around what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior:
Address it: Uncivil, bullying, and demeaning behavior must be addressed; do not allow it become normalized through either explicit rewards or implicit consent.
Walk the talk: Executive leaders must set the tone of acceptability at the top and role model what an effective leader should act like in your organization. Then every other manager will see what’s modeled and be expected to do the same.
Be cognizant of unspoken messages being sent: For example, you can’t simply “hope” that an all-star performer with a history of disrespectful behavior will tone down his rhetoric after he’s rewarded with a promotion because “now he has more responsibility” (aka “the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B”).
Culture: Your culture is defined by the worst behavior it allows to continue. Do not allow the false premise to continue that one must be brash to be seen as “tough” and leader-like or the old cliché that “nice guys finish last.”
Rewards: Base the reward system on the true values of the organization. Be watchful of what is being conveyed if only individual contributions are recognized and not team achievements. (Could someone be subverting this to steal credit, pass blame unfairly, using others only to advance their own careers or paycheck?)
At the end of the day, how you treat people should matter. We spend hours upon hours at work and with our “work family.” This should be, at a minimum, an environment where everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Hopefully you’ll want to do it because we’re all human and it’s the right thing to do, but if not, at least do it for the bottom line.