By: Vanessa Downing, PHD, ACC
“People don’t flee bad jobs, they flee bad bosses.” Years of research on turnover supports that this oft-spouted cliché tends to be overwhelmingly true. And the inverse is true as well: good bosses positively impact the performance and productivity of their direct reports, and their teams quit at lower rates than their “bad boss” peers (Shaw, 2019). As an executive coach and psychologist, I’ve had multiple experiences of supporting high achieving, engaged coaching clients as they made the gut-wrenching decision to leave roles they were otherwise happy with because of the behavior of a toxic boss. In each instance, I’ve found myself wondering, why do organizations let this happen?
While the answer is usually complex, one factor remains consistent: organizations that struggle to identify and cope with poor leaders tend to lack a proactive plan for leadership development, and don’t have a systematic approach to hold leaders accountable for poor behavior.
In this confusing, highly turbulent age of the Great Resignation, HR executives are scrambling to find innovative ways to keep employees satisfied and in-seat. Experts are writing about the benefits of instituting employee well being initiatives (Krekel, C., et al, 2019), and organizations across every industry are enthusiastically jumping on the bandwagon (Baicker and Song, 2021). Perks like in-house masseurs and gourmet snack boxes are intended to surprise employees and make them feel valued. And while these initiatives can bring moments of relief or delight, these perks risk amounting to little more than box-checking if morale suffers due to a culture that allows supervisors to run amuck. Organizations are doubling their efforts to find and retain good employees. But they might miss the most important and fundamental step in elevating well being: taking the time to develop a culture that fosters responsible, skillful leadership and ensuring that leaders are held accountable for their actions.
There is a quote that is frequently cited in business literature that the “culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader(ship) is willing to tolerate.” My clients tell me that nothing is more demotivating than working for leaders whose behavior goes unchecked. When organizations allow disruptive leaders to have free reign, this effectively endorses their poor behavior and ends up dominating the beliefs employees develop about the organization as a whole.
Fixing the problem
There are steps that can be taken to move toward establishing a healthy culture where leaders are supported in their development and held accountable.
1. Realize that “experts” aren’t automatically good leaders.
Obviously, an organization would not keep a bad leader in place just to torture others. That leader is probably deemed essential because they are truly expert at something highly valued by the organization. And this is an unfortunate reality – employees who are great at their unique skill sets, yet inexperienced or poorly prepared for leadership, are frequently promoted into leadership positions because it is the next logical step up the ladder. This obviously hurts employees, but it also hurts the leader who’s been moved up without adequate preparation. When team leaders come to me in crisis (and sometimes in trouble with HR), they often make heartbreaking statements like, “I’m aware that my job is in trouble, and that the only reason they’re keeping me around is that I’m a great surgeon/salesperson/architect.”
2. Provide support for experts to develop their leadership skills
When organizations hire me to work with extremely valuable experts who end up being “disruptive” team leaders, the goals and needs tend to revolve around skills related to emotional regulation and self-management, communicating more effectively, motivating and developing teams – all skills they likely never learned during their development as superstar individual contributors. When experts and specialists are moved into leadership positions, everyone involved benefits if they are given proactive support like formal individual or small group coaching and a connection to a seasoned and well-respected mentor.
A leader’s behavior contributes to workers’ motivation, engagement, and satisfaction more than other perks, and often beyond salary and benefits. Coaching and education may come with a price, but forward-thinking HR leaders understand that not supporting leadership development ends up being far more costly!
3. Use data to customize a sustainable structure for leadership development
Fully understanding the current climate of an organization is a critical step, and a fairly simple one if there are tools like employee engagement surveys that speak to the areas where the organization needs help. With a careful review of survey data, you may find the answers are already in front of you. A thorough assessment will help you target the pain points and peek over blind spots so you can feel confident in implementing solutions.
Here are a few key questions you should be asking:
- Has the organization developed or adopted a leadership competency model? Has the organization done the work in defining the behaviors and abilities of an ideal leader? A few well-researched competencies include self regulation, effective communication skills, and ability to manage change.
- Does the organization have a way to assess how leaders are living up to expectations of leadership? Are these defined behaviors and abilities included in a formal review process? Who manages the assessments and how is the data analyzed?
- Are organizational outcomes baked into your leadership strategy with other metrics like patient safety outcomes, audience ratings or customer satisfaction?
4. Implement an effective coaching program
Once the decision has been made to implement leadership coaching, the next question is, how? The simplest route may be to engage with an experienced organizational development or executive coaching firm. If the preference is to keep the program in-house, you might consider incorporating the following to help kick things off successfully:
- Foster an environment that encourages open and authentic feedback in every direction. A few ways to do this:
- Implement town halls where all are encouraged to submit questions to leadership.
- Encourage active listening – a skill that encourages the listener to “hear” both verbal and nonverbal cues.
- Institute 360 reviews – these encourage feedback from direct reports, peers, and bosses.
- Identify effective and available leadership mentors to sponsor your program. Ideally, these are experienced colleagues who are well-respected, and good communicators.
- Adopt a page or two from Mayo Clinic’s Leader Index, an evaluation of leader behaviors. The Leader Index is designed for physicians, but is adaptable for any industry – and is one of my favorite tools. It advocates incorporating the following key behaviors that are thought to help leaders establish a climate of trust:
- Include: Nurture a culture where all are welcome and psychologically safe
- Inform: Transparently share what you know with the team
- Inquire: Consistently solicit input and ideas of associates
- Develop: Support professional development and career aspirations of staff
- Recognize: Express appreciation and gratitude in a meaningful way to colleagues
The decision to become proactive about developing leaders – and to hold them accountable for the impact they have on culture – is among the most powerful decisions an organization can make to improve the wellbeing of employees.
Baicker, K. and Song, Z. (2021, June 17). Workplace wellness programs are big business. They might not work. Washington Post.
Krekel, C., Ward, G., & De Neve, J. (2019, March 3). Employee Wellbeing, Productivity, and Firm Performance. Saïd Business School WP 2019-04.
Shaw, K. (2019). Bosses matter: The effects of managers on workers’ performance. IZA World of Labor 2019: 456 doi: 10.15185/izawol.456