The Bad Boss Paradox, and an Idea for a Cure
As an Upper Midwesterner born in Texas who found his way home as soon as he could, I love Garrison Keillor’s interesting, witty observations. “Norwegian bachelor farmers. They don’t reproduce. Why are there still so many of them?”
In Are You a Bad Boss? Here’s How to Know, Naomi Karten begins by saying that if reading articles about how to be a good boss were all it took, there would not be so many articles about how to survive a bad boss. Naomi goes on to cite what I have learned as the First Rule of HR; people do not quit jobs; they quit bosses.
Garrison Keillor might say, “Bad bosses. They’re easy to spot and do so much damage. Why are there still so many of them?” Call it, “The Paradox of the Bad Boss.”
Maybe it was Naomi’s article, or maybe it was just time, but tonight a penny dropped. Maybe there is a simple cure.
First, “People quit bosses” is a fight-or-flight response, not a good-conflict, dialogue-or-boundaries response. I am not judging it—physical separation is one form of boundary-setting, and recommended when dialogue and less drastic boundary setting fail.
Second, we’ve all seen (or been in) bad, long-term relationships, most often with a spouse or family member. Getting out is hard. In How to Solve Your People Problems, Alan Godwin explains what makes unreasonable people (and perhaps bad bosses) so good at keeping their hold—drama. Unreasonable people are adept at manipulating you into playing a supporting role in little plays in which they always wind up the good guy. It takes knowledge, practice, and the support of others to establish limits without getting pulled into the drama.
Here’s how I think we come down with the illness of Bad Bosses.
Let’s assume that Bad Bosses start as Godwin’s unreasonable people, lacking in humility, knowledge, awareness, empathy, and responsibility. Because they live for drama, and management is a bigger stage, unreasonable people will aspire to it. Because they are good at drama, we are going to promote at least a few of them to Bad Boss.
Now, we are infected. However because the onset of symptoms—good people leaving—is delayed, we do not even know it. Worse yet, in the short run, we might even suddenly feel better than good.
With their lack of empathy, Bad Bosses can Get Stuff Done. With their knack for drama, Bad Bosses can contain the damage downwards and maintain their image of rightness upwards, long enough to cement their reputation. We often promote them again!
Imperceptibly, better than good gives way to chronically ill. The people with a healthy sense of self, above-average talent, and not too many financial chains have gradually slipped away as the culture of a whole swath of the org chart has become toxic.
What happened? At the point of infection, nothing, and that could be the problem. So there, at the point of infection, could also be the place for the solution. Strengthen the immune system at the point where infection will first occur. That is not in the C-Suite, and that is not in the HR department. It is among the “individual contributors,” the ”resources,” the “little people.” That is where the infection starts. Spare them some of the FranklinCovey and the motivational posters, and instead train them on Boundaries and How to Solve Your People Problems. Train them all. One individual might protect herself proactively with Naomi’s recommended reading about surviving bad bosses, but one white blood cell does not an immune system make. After training, give them a secure communications channel. My father-in-law is retired from Delta Airlines. In its glory days, if you had an unresolvable problem with your supervisor, you could catch a flight to Atlanta and state your case.
Here is my prediction. As soon as you drop a Bad Boss into that environment, you will get symptoms—probably an earache, and maybe a pain in the posterior. However, at least you will know you are sick before you end up in the ER, or missing a foot. As a positive side effect, I predict you will also get that better than good feeling, because more conflict within that group (inevitable, even with reasonable people) will be handled well rather than badly. Moreover, a feeling from such a source will last.
If you try this experiment, let me know how it goes. If it has been done, tell me that, too. I have never seen it or heard of it.
Alternatively, you could just reread Blink and keep doing what you have been doing.