The symptoms of bad leadership

This weeks article comes from the September ’07 edition of our newsletter Perform.

A popular website search last month was “How does bad leadership affect you?” While I do not generally like to dwell on the negative, it may be therapeutic for the sufferers. The sufferers being both the badly led and the organisations employing them.

I will describe some of the most potent outcomes of bad leadership: the feelings of the people involved and the effects on the organisation.

Let us put to one side the definition of a leader. I will come back to that another day.

Duvet day

Anyone who has worked for a “bad leader” understands how damaging the experience is to one’s concept of self-worth.

You want to stay in bed and not go to work. You may get real physical symptoms, be unable to sleep or even become clinically depressed in extreme cases.

Certainly, a rise in absenteeism is inevitable and should be an alarm signal for the organisation.

The badly led go through a phase early on of asking, “is it me?” Most of us have a tendency to believe our boss. How can my boss be doing this to me? Why does he treat me like this? What have I done?

Then there is the next symptom: the feeling that we have done something wrong that we do not understand and that no one will explain. I recommend reading Kafka’s “The Trial” if you need a full understanding of how the feeling is created.

We all learnt at our mother’s knee to avoid pain. If our boss gives us pain, we minimise the contact we have with him. We attempt to minimise the risk of doing something wrong (even if we do not understand the rules) by doing as little as we can. If we get pain because we are still doing something, we do less. Performance plunges in the search for anonymity. It takes a good leader to explain if the pain is due to low performance!

We aim to just satisfy rather than achieve something noticeable. This damages our mental condition. Now we know we are not doing as much as we could or should.

We try to leave and find another job. High staff turnover is another clear symptom of poor people management.

As we have adopted a policy of just doing enough, customers are a real threat. They may want something inconvenient, may draw attention to me and disturb my quiet, peaceful corner. The best solution is to minimise all involvement with customers. The first opportunity you get, tell them you cannot do it and stop. If that does not work, transfer them to someone else. Just get rid of them as soon as possible!

Naturally, enough when told your organisation is going to run a change programme you know it will only get worse. Obviously, your boss will make sure you are a loser. You are not going to help push those changes through! Do everything you can to undermine the change programme, you cannot cope now and the change will make it worse!

Then you reach the bitter stage, usually around 12 months or so after it started. You no longer believe it is your fault. You feel badly treated. The least you can do is tell everyone about it, at work, at home or on the street. Difficulty in recruiting is key Puzzled and unhappysymptom of having an unhappy workforce.

Despite the high regard in which you used to hold your organisation, the fact they have not noticed what your boss is doing to you, means they are just as bad. They are all a waste of time. However, am I going to say that in the staff survey? If they were interested, they would come ask me in person!

Then to cap it all you get a bad review and a mediocre pay rise! You know it is not fair. Why doesn’t somebody tell you what the matter is? By this stage even if somebody does tell you, the chances are you will not believe it. Sadly, people get so demotivated, so deeply unhappy that they are out of reach of normal commercial management rescue.

The final symptom is the organisation losing its people who did not want to work. Obviously lazy and good for nothing, they are a drain on the rest of the staff.

The badly led organisation always has a plentiful supply of lazy people.

To try to restore a positive mood can I ask you for your best short example of bad leadership practice?


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