Are Bad Bosses Becoming an Endangered Species?

Bad Bosses

We all have experience dealing with a bad boss.

Whether it’s undermining their subordinates by fostering a culture of fear for their jobs or quashing dissent, bad bosses have had free reign to ruin organizations for nearly a century.

But the agile era is upon us. Bad bosses are going the way of the dodo.

Companies are learning how harmful cancerous bosses are to the bottom line when they are allowed to fester and rot in organizations. Bad bosses will also have nowhere to go as the bossless workplace gains popularity and more high achievers go the independent route.

But what are the factors driving change in the workplace of the 21st century?

Your (Bad) Boss Isn’t That Stressed Out

A group of researchers at Stanford University confirmed what many employees out there suspected all along: being the boss isn’t all that stressful.

This new research risks debunking the image of a traditional manager–overworked with their own projects and overloaded with the responsibilities of managing a team.

Traditional management has always tried to convince us, the lowly employee, that the job of managing the work was too difficult for us to execute ourselves.

Instead, the study showed that the bosses surveyed reported being less anxious and less stressed than the employees, suggesting that it’s the employees who have the more difficult job.

Even though job-related stress might owe something to your genetic makeup, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why bad bosses are often less stressed out than the employees they supervise.

Bad bosses, unlike the salary slaves they command, have more autonomy, more freedom, and more control over where, when, and how they do their work.

It turns out that having control over your day-to-day tasks makes a big difference when it comes to happiness. If autonomy is a finite resource in any team, bad bosses are guilty of hoarding too much of it for themselves, at the expense of the team’s well-being.

What Successful Bosses Do Differently

As part of a research project spanning decades, the leadership assessment company Chally gathered data on the personality traits of 9,000 sales managers.

What they found was that successful bosses demonstrated consistent preferences and personality traits in their management styles. Successful bosses were:

  • Humble rather than arrogant
  • Flexible rather than rigid
  • Straightforward rather than evasive
  • Forward-thinking rather than improvisational
  • Precise rather than vague
  • Patient rather than ill-tempered

If this list seems familiar, it reflects many of the findings of agile thinking.

Being flexible rather than rigid is important because change is the only constant, at both the micro-level and the macro-level. Being humble and patient keeps a good boss honest and open to the contributions of their team members.

If your boss isn’t exhibiting these traits, that’s a sign you have a bad boss and a negative sign for your organization as a whole. But there’s evidence that some attitudes in traditional management are changing for the better.

Bosses are Adapting to Change, Even in Traditional Management Organizations

Management theorists are recognizing that a key component of successful organizations is trust.

Organizational trust requires caring for coworkers, but it also means being honest and candid when giving feedback, something that traditional management routinely fails to do outside of annual performance review (and even those are of questionable valuable).

Bosses are also showing more of a human side to their knowledge workers.

A survey of 1,000 employers and employees in Western countries found that bosses are taking an increasingly flexible approach to how their employees structure their days, from later starts to running personal errands during work hours.

A part of the change is driven by the success of telecommuters and remote workers, who have demonstrated that increased personal flexibility leads to increased productivity for the company.

Since employees are often working from home after-hours anyway, bosses are getting wise to the logic of flexibility, a part of a broader megatrend of work-life integration. That’s how alternative work arrangements have moved the ball forward in the workplace, even for their colleagues stuck in cubicles.

The arrogant bosses of the past are being put on notice. Owners are becoming more aware of how the insecure, demoralizing behavior of bad bosses cause turnover, dysfunction, and ultimately lower profits.

Researchers at The University of Akron and Michigan State University developed a set of questions to identify whether a boss was too arrogant to be effective:

  • Does your boss put his/her personal agenda ahead of the organization’s agenda?
  • Does the boss discredit others’ ideas during meetings and often make them look bad?
  • Does your boss reject constructive feedback?
  • Does the boss exaggerate his/her superiority and make others feel inferior?

The researchers warn that these are the red flags that signal a boss could be undermining an organization’s success.

But one of the hallmarks of agile thinking is the idea of the self-organizing team. What happens when employees choose their own projects and priorities, without the input of the boss?

The Bossless Workplace

The French company FAVI is a manufacturer of car components. When CEO Jean-François Zobrist took over in 1983, he did something radical: Zobrist got rid of all the managers:

Not only does FAVI have no personnel department, it has no hierarchy anywhere. There is no middle management, no central operating committees, no time clocks or cards, and no thick employee handbooks jammed with the traditional “do this, don’t do that” policies. No one at FAVI uses the words personnel, worker, or employee. (And not because they’re English words, either.)

According to Zobrist, by leaving the decision-making to the people who know their jobs the best, the actual workers, he can concentrate on the big strategic vision for the company.

Workers remain accountable by organizing into teams. Teams are free to experiment, iterate, and fail fast according to their own standards. And the whole organization moves forward.

Going Independent

The success of the The Four Hour Work Week and the lifestyle design movement has led to many digital natives seeking a new kind of career, one that isn’t beholden to the bigger is better mentality of the Fortune 500.

Lifestyle designers are choosing flexibility and freedom over smaller paychecks, decreasing benefits, and dehumanizing work conditions.

If bad bosses are being rooted out of organizations at increasing rate, it’s because the options for high performers in the marketplace have only increased in the internet age. Nowadays, the best and brightest don’t go to work for Ford or GE, they start their own companies.

As the talent drain begins to hit these organizations, the pressure to reform traditional management will ramp up.

Final Thoughts

Agile ideas are changing the way we work. Not just for entrepreneurs and lifestyle designers, but everyone working in cubicles and office parks throughout the West.

Increasing options for work and life only add ammunition to our ability to negotiate with big companies for better terms and better bosses.

While there will always be jerks at every level of an organization, let’s hope this means the bad boss as a class of individuals is going extinct.

Image by Alex E. Proimos.

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