Why Is American Business So Totally Addicted to Bad Managers?

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Mar 5, 2015

So once again I find myself pondering why there are so many bad bosses, and without negating any of my previous theories, this time I wanted to explore the role those surrounding the bad boss play in the horror show.

And I do mean horror show, because the focus of today’s discussion is not your run-of-the-mill ineffectual boss, the one who with a little more experience and coaching would be a really good boss.


Today we’re talking about terrible bosses, the kind that deliberately undermine their teams, bully staff, or provide inconsistent or even ridiculous directions, then publicly berate their subordinates when everything goes to hell.

The power of one

It’s a romantic American ideal — one person, with enough determination and grit, can make a profound and positive impact on the world.

Heck, I believe in the ideal. I think this “one person” has to be extraordinary and crazy persistent, but yeah, I’m a believer.

The dark side of this ideal, of course, is that one person can also have a profoundly negative impact on the world. Unfortunately, our workplaces provide plenty of opportunity for us to see this phenomenon firsthand.

When Jon Maner, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, began studying a specific kind of bad boss — those who deliberately sabotage their teams — he learned that individuals “driven by a desire for power” were more likely to:

 …Intentionally sideline high-performing team members, limit communication and social bonding among team members, or compile ill-matched teams if they think it will help ensure their own place at the top.”


Addicted to bad managers

Maner’s work yielded some noteworthy insights (more on those in a bit), yet I’m still tempted to ask: Why ask why?

That’s because anyone who’s ever worked with one of these twisted managers knows why. Their lust for power is palatable. But what I still want to know is, why do the rest of us allow it?

Despite the heaps of material written on how to eradicate/rehabilitate bad managers, I’m convinced we’re in love with these creeps.

Think about all the qualities we celebrate in our leaders, such as decisiveness, confidence, charm, charisma, and loquacity.

What’s not on the list? Kindness, patience, selflessness, or humility.

We hire leaders who bowl us over with their look-at-me personalities, and when they don’t do the flippin job, we redefine the job. Suddenly, team building, employee development, and getting quality work done through others does NOT a good manager make.

As a final insult, we may even punish those with the guts to complain while wondering why employees aren’t engaged.

Warning! Relentless self-promoter in the house

But back to those insights from Maner, which provide concrete tips for creating better leaders.

One insight from the study is that people who want power tend to self-select into powerful positions. And while these control chasers are distracting everyone with their flash, organizations may be overlooking individuals more interested in prestige and respect than power. As Maner says:

A real trick for organizations is to identify [prestige-oriented workers] and raise them up into positions of leadership, whether or not they ask for it, because they might not always be as inclined as power-hungry people are to seek high-status positions in their organization.”

Another insight from the study? When power-oriented leaders feel insecure, they tend to behave especially bad.

Again, from Maner:

What might help leaders perform at their best is knowing that they’re not going to lose their job today or tomorrow, that they can really follow through on whatever vision it is they have and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But at least they’ve really had a chance to put their vision into action.”

At the same time, however, Maner says managers must be held accountable for what they sow. Indeed. Any manager, but especially one enjoys dominating others, would be tempted to do as he or she pleases — resulting mayhem be damned — without accountability.

Focus, please!

Despite the current state of affairs (i.e., lots and lots of bad bosses), there’s certainly hope. While we may be addicted to bad managers — or at the very least, addicted to bad ideas about good managers — we can learn to appreciate better ideas.

Dr. Maureen Duffy, co-author of Overcoming Mobbing, gave me her take on the matter in an email message:

… There simply isn’t a sufficient focus on supervisory behavior yet. Although I think [bad] behavior is becoming less and less acceptable … we have a long way to go.”

Yes, we have a long way to go, but we can get there. We just have to want the right thing bad enough to kick our bad habits.

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