A lot of words are expended here and elsewhere on the topic of what constitutes good management and what constitutes bad management. It’s fair to say there is no absolute answer to this question as the relative importance of different elements will vary depending on the perspective from which you view the situation. Working life and the decisions that affect it look different depending whether you are a skilled worker, unskilled worker, manager, finance director, CEO, shareholder, customer or omnipotent deity who gets to decide the fate of everyone’s immortal soul.
The US Constitution holds certain truths to be self-evident and most people have very definite ideas on what truths of good management are self-evident. It’s just a shame that exactly what is evident varies so much from self to self. The following real-life stories showing the actions of good bosses and bad bosses are told from the perspective of an IT worker but when I’ve shared them with others in the past, I’ve found that the experiences are very broadly shared.
Although the companies involved were very different, they had the following things broadly in common: they had a requirement to make a profit, losing good staff would be negative both in terms of the loss of expertise and experience as well as the costs incurred in replacing them and finally, there were certain “deliverables” expected of the department and you could objectively measure whether or not these things were delivered.
Scenario 1 – an outside entity attacks the team in a game of office politics.
Good Boss The first thing a good boss did in this situation was to treat me specifically and the team generally as grown ups who were capable of dealing with the truth. He told us exactly what was happening, what had been said and what the potential implications were. He then asked for our side of the story and if we had any evidence to support our version of events. Fortunately we did have a paper and data trail that covered our collective butts so our boss told us not to worry and went off and dealt with the situation. In short, he trusted us and recognised we were his best asset so went and represented us.
Bad Boss The worst response I have suffered from a bad boss in this type of situation is from a boss who constantly attempted to deflect criticism away from her and straight onto her team. She seemed to think that actually defending her own team was too high risk and so responded to almost every attack by automatically agreeing with the attacker and blaming an individual on the team. “Oh yeah, that Mr Angry. He’s always screwing that up no matter how many times I tell him.”
There are three major drawbacks to this strategy that all cowardly managers really need to consider. One, it makes you an easy target because other parts of the business realise you never mount a defence so they can blame you for everything. Two, it makes your team regard you as the enemy because they sure as hell can’t trust you to be an ally. Whether you realise it or not, one day you will need their support. Three, when your scapegoat(s) eventually quit, the whole strategy falls apart when things don’t get any better. If the problem doesn’t go away when the person you always blamed leaves, it becomes slightly more obvious where the blame might lie.
Scenario 2 – There really is a performance problem you have to deal with
Bad Boss I’m not perfect and I have screwed things up in the past. The classic way for a bad boss to deal with this is to be punitive from the outset. This is where the boss conducts a performance review or (shudder) “counselling session” in three distinct stages. When the session starts the bad boss has already reached a negative conclusion – “You are bad for this reason.” The second stage involves piling on damning “evidence” that is often arguably true but all spun to present the recipient in the worst possible light. The third and final stage is the threat, sometimes known in doublespeak as “improvement criteria” but could be more honestly described as the manager’s plan for screwing the employee no matter what.
This whole process can be documented to look extremely fair. The problem is, when you make your conclusion before starting this process, everything after that is done simply to justify the conclusion already reached which sucks the fairness right out of it. If all you want to do is punish someone, go right ahead but that sort of mentality is not maintainable long term. Good (or salvageable) employees will leave for a more positive environment. Truly bad employees will make your life a misery no matter what process you follow so may as well hang onto your own integrity and deal with situations in a productive way.
Good Boss The way a good boss shows themself to be a good boss in this situation is to be open and honest. If you start with the point of view that the situation can be remedied then you’re far more likely to actually reach a positive resolution. Be honest with the employee about what the issue is and why it’s serious but be open to the possibility that there’s something you don’t know about that could paint things in a different light.
In one situation, I was called to account for not doing some paperwork that turned out to be critical for an audit. My boss dragged me in to tell me what was happening and why it was important (the fact the paperwork was missing had been discovered by an auditor who was making a big scene about it) and asked me for my side. I came clean and admitted I hadn’t done it because, well, it was a pain. He took a “what’s done is done” attitude and asked me how I could recover the situation. I said I could have the paperwork all done within a week and I would work with the auditor to make sure it was all OK. He accepted this and gave me a gentle “don’t let it happen again” nudge. Then he told me he probably would have sacked me if I had lied about it or tried to blame someone else. He probably also would have kicked my arse if I didn’t follow through on my commitment as well.
Scenario 3 – Getting staff to do what you want
Bad Boss Bad bosses almost alway try to enforce their will through fear or at least through the threat of retribution. They don’t trust their staff to do well and think they have to constantly threaten them with what will happen if they don’t do the right thing. The trouble with negative motivation is that it produces negative results. You might get the output you are demanding but the staff will have no emotional commitment to the work. In my experience, staff subjected to negative management approaches will find a way to make sure they are producing the bare minimum to escape negative attention.
If the staff don’t care about their work, there is no motivation to reach new heights. When your motivation is solely to avoid the metaphorical stick, you can safely stop the moment you are out of the stick’s reach. And don’t underestimate the negative payback you will get from staff. There is no end to how devious workers will get when they feel they are being treated unfairly. At the more benign end of the scale are simple “go slow” strategies but the worse you make staff feel, the easier many people find it to justify sabotage or outright theft from the company.
Good Boss The most powerful tool at the good boss’ disposal is respect. When staff respect their boss they want to earn the respect of the boss in turn. The horrible feeling of disappointing someone you want to impress is a far more powerful motivator than the threat of retribution. This does not mean a boss has to be smarter or better than employees (although that helps). It means leading with integrity, encouraging positivity and recognising achievements. Above all, it means showing respect to your staff and letting them see you treat everyone you deal with in an ethical manner.
As old fashioned as it sounds, at the end of the day being a good boss or a bad boss is an ethical choice. Many environments seem to reward negative behaviour. When the ruthless and self-interested rise more rapidly up the corporate ladder it can be hard to avoid following suit. Positive management practices promote positive outcomes, both commercially and in terms of the well-being of staff (managers included). Sociopaths sometimes get exactly what they want but no matter how much they get, they’re still sociopaths. And if being the tyrant king of a steaming shitpile populated by angry, negative people is your idea of success then I guess you wasted a few minutes of your life by reading this piece.