When Bosses Do Harm
By Kannan Ramaswamy, Ph.D., and Bill Youngdahl, Ph.D.
Bad bosses don’t wake up in the morning and ask themselves: “How can I derail the corporate strategy today?” Our research, based on surveys and interviews with more than 250 managers in 37 countries, shows that most ineffective leaders remain blissfully unaware of the harm they do to their organizations. They chuckle with everyone else when they read “Dilbert” cartoons about the Pointy-Haired Boss.
We credit the disconnect to a “hindrance trap” that lulls emerging leaders into a false sense of accomplishment over a period of years or even decades. At least three forces contribute to this trap.
The first is the socialization process of becoming a leader. As corporate climbers move up the ranks, they are encouraged to think big and leave the details to others. The result is often a disconnect between strategy conception and implementation. Yet some ideas that seem feasible in the C-suite simply don’t work on the ground.
Lack of a “speak up” culture compounds the problem in many organizations. Leaders who discourage honest, complete feedback usually find out too late — or not at all — when they are hindering rather than helping their teams.
The third contributor to the hindrance trap is success, which might seem counterintuitive. People expect to find low-performing bosses at the helm of low-performing organizations. But our research also detected poor leadership within high-performing organizations. In many cases these organizations succeed despite — not because of — their leaders.
Often success comes because self-motivated individuals compensate for their boss’ shortcomings. Other times middle managers build protective bubbles around their teams to protect them from leadership voids higher up the ladder. Luck is another possibility.
During one webinar with a Thunderbird Executive Education client, we opened a poll to gage perceptions of leadership within the high-performing division of a Fortune 100 company. To our surprise, 60 percent of participants said their division was successful despite the hindrance of its leaders. Only 15 percent perceived their leaders as helpful.
The broader study found similar results. Overall, only 35 percent of respondents at high-performing companies said their leaders were doing a good job inspiring their teams to participate in strategic initiatives.
Only 60 percent said their leaders were doing a good job of clarifying strategic intent. That’s more than half — and certainly better than the results we found within low-performing organizations. But it still raises the questions: What are the other 40 percent of leaders doing? How much potential is being lost? How much better could these organizations be?
Unfortunately, low-performing leaders of high-performing organizations might never find the answers because their apparent accomplishments mask their shortcomings. Why would they change their leadership styles when they are receiving bonuses, accolades and promotions for doing a good job?
Leaders locked in the hindrance trap might never detect their predicament and break free without honest reflection, feedback and reform. A good place to start is to consider three behaviors associated with helpful leadership.
Even highly motivated professionals struggle to hit moving or vague targets. Helpful leaders clarify strategic intent so that it resonates throughout the organization. They show how various initiatives align with the strategy. They give team members a sense of purpose. At the same time, they leave room for individual initiative as circumstances change.
Ineffective leaders overload their teams with tasks and initiatives without stopping to consider if their people are past capacity. Many of these leaders underestimate the amount of work required to meet their demands because they are too far removed from daily operations. Their response to missed deadlines or targets is to turn up the fear factor. Yet even the most passionate pep talk will not rally the troops when the underlying problem is lack of capacity rather than lack of effort.
Helpful leaders take a different approach to inspiring performance. They start with a clear understanding of “strategic pathways,” meaning the processes and tasks involved with implementing strategy as it cascades through the organization.
These leaders remain mindful of capacity. Then they rally their teams by conveying a sense of purpose and belonging. Along the way, they emphasize the potential joy that will come through accomplishment as the team works together to create value.
Ineffective leaders often view themselves above the people they supervise. Helpful leaders, sometimes called “servant leaders,” invert the pyramid and place themselves at the bottom. Their role then becomes to enable the people above them to accomplish strategic goals. Servant leaders make sure their teams have sufficient time, training and other resources to succeed.
Few people look in the mirror and see a bad boss. It is always easier to critique others than ourselves. Yet if we are willing to look inward and don’t like what we find, the good news is we already have taken the first step to improve.
Kannan Ramaswamy, Ph.D., is the William D. Hacker Chair Professor of Management at Thunderbird School of Global Management near Phoenix, Arizona. Bill Youngdahl, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Project and Operations Management at Thunderbird.