I wrote my first epoch on asshole bosses back in early December 2015, so about four years ago almost. Here it is. Now, yesterday on Harvard Business Review, we have this headline — and I wasn’t clear that we needed this info, or lacked it, in 2019: “To Prevent Burnout, Hire Better Bosses.” Indeed. That would make some logical sense. Part of the problem is that we breathlessly discuss “employee experience” all the time and rarely, if ever, discuss “manager experience” — but the average employee’s experience is driven by the experience of managers, specifically what they’re throwing down the chain out of frustration.
Even though we massively over-complicate the why of people leaving jobs, in reality it’s usually their relationship to their manager — or something about money. (And often those are related too; often your manager is the one blocking you from making more money.)
So it would stand to reason that if we had better bosses, we could solve a few of — if not all — the major problems people feel at/about work, help reduce turnover, etc. Logical, no?
Why doesn’t it happen, then?
Lots of interrelated, complex reasons. Bad management typically does not evolve out; if anything, it often gets worse as a company scales. Why? Well, lots of different reasons. Among them:
- We often promote managers based on their skills around tasks or project completion, because that’s what we saw at the previous level. Managing people is very different, however.
- We often confuse “extroversion” with “people person,” whereas sometimes — more than we think — the extroverted sales-type guy as a manager is completely chaotic.
- We barely, if at all, train managers.
- Work is not really about “people feeling good” and “employee experience” to most hard-chargers. It’s about money and playing a game to win. Stuff like “employees being engaged” and “reduced turnover” are good things to say at meetings, but a lot of executive-types don’t care. If all the peons left, would it really impact their lives that much?
- Being busy, and having numbers you can quote that you “hit,” are status symbols in most offices. As long as those remain status symbols, the actual tenets of good management of other human beings cannot rise up.
So what could we do?
A few things:
- Before someone is promoted to be a people manager, talk to lots of different people who have been on projects with that person. How are they within a team? What role do they assume? Easy or hard to work with?
- Do more assessments. Assessments are sometimes bullshit, yes, but can be helpful here and there.
- Try to reduce or avoid “cronyism,” or the “Old Boys Network,” or generally political hires and advancements. I know this is massively hard because of human psychology, but it will make your organization better.
- Realize research says getting rid of a toxic manager is 2x more important to the business than hiring superstars, so look at employee feedback. If everyone on a team hates their boss, it’s time to do something with that boss.
How realistic is it that this will change?
It’s not realistic at all. What will happen is this, in all likelihood:
- In the U.S. and perhaps globally, there will be a recession within two years.
- The worst of the middle managers — those that cripple the bottom line — will be out on their ass during layoffs.
- They might go get other managerial jobs when the economy ticks back up, or they might be long-term unemployed and picking up groceries for the uber-rich.
- That’s the closest thing we have to a “managerial reckoning,” because so long as the trains are running and middling stuff is kept off the SVP’s desks, terrible, absentee managers in the middle to high middle ranks aren’t going anywhere.
- Money will get them out, but only for so long.
Look, we can make management better — the problem is that no one really cares so long as there’s revenue and profit and some old white guy investor somewhere seems happy. Until we care more about getting part of the equation right, i.e. having good, competent, people-first managers who also hit KPIs, very little will ever change.