Have you ever encountered a nasty boss? You know who I mean. The kind of arrogant, thoughtless jerk who occasionally exhibits any one of a wide range of unsavory character traits. These are the sort who are often disrespectful, dishonest, mean, thoughtless, self-centered, selfish or unethical. They feel free to indulge their temper, raise their voices, put you down, use sarcasm as a coaching technique, interrupt before you can finish a sentence, don’t listen very well and/or don’t really care about the well-being of anyone other than themselves. They kiss up to their superiors, take credit for your work and rarely, if ever, give a pat on the back or utter the words “thank you.”
If you are not self-employed and you have never encountered a nasty boss in your company, please put the paper down now and call the Guinness Book of World Records to make sure your firm gets the credit it deserves as the only one on the planet with uniformly decent and respectful leaders. But, for those of you who are not it this camp, I’ve got another question: why are there so many nasty bosses? How could so many individuals who are self-serving, unempathetic, two-faced and just plain mean ever earn the trust and respect required to be elevated into a position of power? That is not an easy question. Presumably, prior to their promotion, every jerky boss who roams the earth today convinced someone that they were leadership material. That suggests that they are especially talented at managing upward, or perhaps they were not always jerks. Instead, their jerk nature may have arisen only after they were put in charge of others.
This latter theory is one recently advanced by Dacher Keltner in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review. In his article entitled “Managing Yourself Don’t Let Power Corrupt You,” Keltner asserts that his research has “uncovered a disturbing pattern.”
While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness and sharing, when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish and unethical behavior.
This is a powerful observation that offers an explanation for the ubiquity of nasty bosses in the workplace. It also compels conscientious business professionals to ask: If we all tend to become jerks when we assume leadership positions, what can we do about it?
There is a lot riding on the answer to this question. Nasty bosses are responsible for untold suffering and a significant loss in productivity. They destroy morale. They destroy teamwork. They distract employees from their work. They cause the best and the brightest to flee. And, in addition to the fact that disrespectful behavior is itself misconduct, nasty bosses create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that is ripe for fraud and corrupt business practices.
Fortunately, there are several steps that you can take to minimize the number of nasty bosses in your firm. Here are some suggestions:
- Expressly take into consideration the character of individuals before you hire or promote them. This won’t guarantee that they’ll be saintly leaders, but it may reduce the odds that your workplace will be ruled by jerks.
- Set clear standards of conduct for your leaders that specifically mandate that they treat everyone with respect.
- Perform routine 360 degree performance reviews of your managers and hold all leaders accountable for how they treat their subordinates and colleagues.
- Speak up when you see bosses abusing others, confront the bullies and teach others to do the same.
- Swiftly terminate or demote those who prove unworthy of leadership positions regardless of the short-term impact on the business.
Regardless of whether you are in a position to execute any of the recommendations above, there is one step you can and must take to prevent nasty bosses from taking root in your firm: Don’t become one yourself.
If Keltner’s research is correct, the tendency to be nasty is not limited to those who possess deep character flaws or are not taught manners growing up. It is a tendency that we all share. It is a form of misbehavior that we are all susceptible to. Specifically, Keltner states that “studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office. And people who’ve just moved into senior roles are particularly vulnerable to losing their virtues, my research and other studies indicate.”
To counter this tendency, and to do our part to reduce the number of nasty bosses in our workplace, Keltner recommends we focus our attention on learning to manage ourselves. This is a hard lesson for most of us. We like to think of ourselves as reasonable, decent and fair. We also like to focus our attention and energy on trying to change others. This, of course, is a futile task. We might be able to identify nasty bosses, hold them accountable for their actions and eliminate them from our workplace, but we cannot change them. They must choose to change themselves.
To protect ourselves against our natural tendency to abuse power, Keltner recommends we take two steps:
- Develop greater self-awareness—especially when taking on leadership roles; and
- Practice graciousness by engaging in the virtuous behaviors that helped us rise to a position of responsibility in the first place: empathy, gratitude and generosity.
So, if you have too many nasty bosses in your workplace, take common-sense steps to identify them and remove them from positions of power, but remember to first focus on managing yourself.
Jim Nortz is chief compliance officer for Carestream Health Inc. He also is a former board member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the RABEF, the ECOA or Carestream Health. Nortz can be reached at email@example.com.
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