HR Hero Line

Finding a cure for bad bosses

Horror stories abound of bad bosses. Some are bullies, others inept, still others well-meaning but ineffective. Whatever the reason, bad bosses damage productivity and morale. They also take a toll on an employers’ ability to recruit and retain top talent.

A recent survey from online career community Glassdoor on the impact of managers on employment brand found that 66 percent of employees say their direct manager has an impact on their career. Twenty percent say that impact is negative.

In another study, workplace data analysis firm Evolv conducted a study of 2,000 customer service employees at Xerox. High turnover plagued the department, and the study attributed much of the problem to supervisors.

The study found that supervisors who engage with their teams could keep employees five to six times longer than the “drill sergeant” bosses. By acting on the data revealed through the study, Xerox was able to cut attrition in the department by 20 percent in six months.

HR’s role
Clearly, employers need to guard against bad bosses, and HR has a role to play in grooming and training them. Alice Waagen, president and founder of Workforce Learning, LLC, conducted a webinar for HR professionals in March titled “Build a Better Boss: How to Recognize, Support, and Develop the Core Skills for Managerial Success.”

Waagen says it’s important to build great supervisors because they “are the critical link between the executive suite—who are setting strategy—and the employees who are executing operations.” Depending on the size of an organization, there may be many layers between the top executives and the staff.

Waagen told her audience that top executives have many opportunities for leadership training, and low-level employees also have ample training prospects, but “the layer in the middle is often overlooked.”

It may be hard to know where to start in the training that can turn a bad boss around, but time and priority management is a good place to start. Many times people who are top performers get promoted to management when a less stellar but still solid performer with better interpersonal skills would make a better boss.

Waagen says that first-level managers often have to manage others while keeping at least a small individual contributor role. That can create an almost impossible job. “The problem is … if they still love to do the work, they’re going to have a stronger pull on the side of their performance plan that is the plan for their individual contributor work. … So guess what doesn’t get done,” she said.

Finding balance
When a boss neglects the management part of the job, that’s when HR hears from an employee saying “it’s June and I still don’t have any performance goals because my boss is too busy to meet with me.”

Waagen suggests providing the manager some kind of guide or metric. It depends on the size of the organization and other factors, but she suggests that as a guide an average of one hour per week per full-time direct report should be spent on planning, delegating, coaching, correcting, etc. If the boss’ direct reports are inexperienced, they may need more time from the boss, and if they’re seasoned, maybe less, but the boss needs to spend dedicated time on the management side of the job.

Start with the calendar, Waagen says. Time spent on managerial tasks needs to be “blocked and booked into their schedule just like any other activity,” she says. “If it’s fit in around other things as time permits, not only will things not get done, it also sends an absolutely egregious message to their staff.”

Bosses have to find the right balance. It’s wrong for a boss to micromanage, but it’s also wrong for a boss to dismiss the management role by assuming the staff knows what they’re doing and they don’t need a supervisor, Waagen says.

Signs of success
Waagen has a list of signals of success in a boss. The top five “success symptoms” are:

  • The boss sets clear expectations on work and work standards.
  • The boss has robust performance plans for him- or herself and all staff that are used to monitor, measure, and coach.
  • The boss and staff have regular coaching interactions.
  • The boss gives and receives feedback.
  • The boss-staff relationship is built on trust and respect.

Waagen also has a list of the top five signs of a boss in trouble.

  • There’s limited delegation.
  • The boss micromanages.
  • The boss doesn’t take time off. A boss accruing more and more vacation time and coming to work sick is a sure sign of trouble.
  • A work group in which no one talks or laughs is a reason for concern.
  • There’s no socializing of any sort within the work group.