If anybody thought respecting your people was some warm and fuzzy new-age management fad and that the boss must be someone whose mood ranges from sour to apoplectic, it would be a good idea to read Stanford Management professor Bob Sutton’s article “Why good bosses tune in to their people”, published in the August edition of McKinsey Quarterly.
According to Sutton, whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a head chef at a restaurant, your success depends on staying in tune with the people with whom you interact most frequently and intensely. Being a boss often resembles the role of a high-status primate: your subordinates watch you constantly, so they know more about you than you know about them. Likewise, anthropologists who study chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons report that followers devote far more attention to their leader than he devotes to them. (Studies of baboon troops show that typical members glance at the dominant male every 20 or 30 seconds.)
Bosses matter, also because more than 95 per cent of all people in the workforce have bosses, are bosses, or both, and because many studies show that for more than 75 per cent of employees, dealing with their immediate boss is the most stressful part of the job. A 2009 study tracking over 3,000 men/women for 10 years found that those with bad bosses suffered 20 to 40 per cent more heart attacks than those with good bosses.
That’s not a surprise as there is enough evidence to show that there are a huge number of bosses who either take all the credit for themselves or give out too many tasks with impossible and constantly changing deadlines.
Unfortunately, too many bosses use “brainstorming meetings” to conduct “blamestorms” where the goal is to point fingers, humiliate the guilty, and throw a few overboard.
Then there are the workaholic bosses who enjoy their job so much that they just work, and work, and work. They find that appealing; but their subordinates mostly find that appalling. Psychologists refer to them as people with an obsessive compulsive disorder.
These CEOs have boundless energy and expect their people to have the same. They also want to be the best on too many parameters: cost, quality, product innovation — everything. But this is simply wrong. Most of them suffer from the indispensability syndrome and are addicted to the adrenaline high that accompanies the job.
Fortune ran an article about Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony, who was quoted as saying at a company meeting. “I don’t see my family much. My family is you.” A reader wrote back saying, “My gosh, if your boss is referring to you as his family, run!” There are also stories about bosses who are pathological liars or control freaks. Some bosses also seem to be having the spine of a jellyfish — someone who would never stand up for you. There is also the obsessive micro-manager who would give assignments but then manage them to death. He trusts his people the way you would trust a five-year-old behind the wheel of the car.
Though no organised surveys have been done on this issue, an informal study in India a few years ago found that almost 75 per cent of the employees surveyed identified their boss as a lousy manager. Many blame wrong promotion policies for this state of affairs. Firms like Microsoft would promote even an average accountant to a manager because he has the potential to outperform an outstanding accountant in the same managerial position. This does not mean that the outstanding accountant should be ignored, but that the career ladder for him may possibly lie sideways rather than head upward.
Of course, there is a flip side too to all this argument about a majority of the bosses being employee-unfriendly. Many feel boss-haters generally suffer from the “everyone-is-dumb-but-me” mindset and are unable to see the value in any person above them in a hierarchy. Too many companies perform well everyday — returning billions in profits by inventing, making, selling and distributing products and services — for bosses out there to be total nincompoops.
It’s true there have been many bosses who pushed performance boundaries. The best example of all times is GE under Jack Welch. When the legendary CEO was warning that the sky was about to fall, GE was posting record financial results. Net income was up sharply and only nine corporations in the Fortune 500 earned more. Yet, Welch didn’t get tired of alarming everybody who cared to listen that GE had to change fast.
Most employees took this as a big yawn initially and thought Welch was being insane. But what Welch saw and others didn’t, was that GE’s comfortable order book position was mostly due to backlogs and the obscured the fact that winning new orders was becoming increasingly difficult. So GE had to change, the CEO said. The rest, of course, is history.