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The Harm Wrought By A Bad Boss

They lead to fail, and fail to lead.

14/09/2017 8:39 AM IST | Updated 14/09/2017 8:39 AM IST
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All companies aim to make profits by providing solutions to their clients. How they perform determines their viability and survival.

Considerable management literature demonstrates that nurturing a supportive workplace culture lies at the heart of effective leadership. These are drawn not only from the experience of big corporations but also small and medium enterprises and especially, family-managed businesses.

Indeed, it is argued that a positive work environment is the key differentiator between passionate and lacklustre employees. Yet, as so many employees would testify, many leaders simply fail to see telltale signs and worse, they actively promote disharmony.

Ineffective leaders are rude, coercive and aggressive... often, they indulge in this kind of behaviour to mask their own shortcomings and inadequacies.

Simon Sinek, in his celebrated book Leaders Eat Last, argues that effective leaders create a strong circle of safety. Consequently, employees feel a sense of belonging, of shared values and a deep sense of empathy. There is trust because they know each is watching the other's back. There is collective aspiration. This impacts performance and productivity, not only positively but also, and more importantly, consistently. They produce sustainable high-performance results.

Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, do precisely the opposite. They are rude, coercive and aggressive in their behaviour. They are basically bullies. They create a toxic work environment where employees do not work as a team. Often, they indulge in this kind of behaviour to mask their own shortcomings and inadequacies.

Such leaders know that quitting is not a realistic option open to the majority. It is from this knowledge that they derive their power. They make employees feel insecure and dispensable. They foster unhealthy competition and encourage gossip, distrust and sycophancy.

They are also known to jump from one project to another and blame company failure on employees, including questioning their lack of passion. This, too, reflects their own lack of personal commitment and focus to the job at hand.

For most employees, negotiating workplace toxicity is a big challenge. More often than not, they allow the negativity to pull them down. They begin to feel smaller than they truly are.

For most employees, negotiating workplace toxicity is a big challenge. More often than not, they allow the negativity to pull them down. They begin to feel smaller than they truly are. It is a cause of great unhappiness. Yet, many are forced to continue in a toxic workplace because their economic circumstances provide them with little alternative.

For those of us who have had the grand opportunity of interacting and working with effective leaders, we know how inspirational they can be. Their single-minded focus is on end objectives and how these might be achieved.

Such leaders know the power of teamwork. In other words, that strong organisational performance requires collective ownership and commitment. Consequently, they have learnt that corporate success not only requires that they, as leaders, transfer knowledge and capacity but more importantly, that they foster a cooperative and collaborative approach towards problem solving.

In short, they build teams that shift organisational and individual thinking from the "me" to the "we" or the "winning together" feeling. They do not promote individual performance. They focus on team building and team performance.

So, why do organisations fail to build teams when the advantages of team-building ought to be obvious to them? After all, the stress on the importance of team building is not new and the Kenyan proverb about the strength of a bundle of sticks as opposed to a single stick is known to most.

[T]e boss expects that simply by putting together a group of individuals that a team is automatically created. This is false! A group is not a team. Teams are built. They are carefully nurtured and nourished.

The legendary management guru Peter Drucker laments, that while team building is a buzzword, the results are not overly impressive. This is principally because of two reasons: first, the leader confuses a group of persons working together with teamwork and second, most leaders are not team players.

We see this so often, especially in small establishments of 8-10 persons, where the boss expects that simply by putting together a group of individuals that a team is automatically created. This is so completely false! A group is not a team. Teams are built. They are carefully nurtured and nourished. This is what effective leaders do.

They realise, in fact, that a group needs to become a team. For this, they require a shared objective and challenge. They need to identify with a shared aspiration. It is only then that the individual willingly subsumes his or her own identity under the team identity. In other words, the transition is from individual to group to a team and finally, teamwork.

A team is not an end in itself but rather, a means to enhanced performance, innovation and productivity. The focus is always teamwork.

Most leaders fail to decipher this. Consequently, they look at a set of individuals in a workplace and assume there is a shared and collective aspiration with company objectives. Unless the leader consciously creates a supportive and collaborative workplace culture, high performance and productivity would be difficult to achieve or sustain.

Despite considerable evidence that a toxic work environment only works against itself, many organisations persist in leadership styles where employees are made to feel belittled and as if they are under-performers.

At the same time, it is a tragic fact that most leaders are not team players. This is equally true of major corporations and small establishments. Simon Sinek shares the example of Stanley O'Neal in his book. O'Neal's ascent in Merrill Lynch was meteoric as, indeed, was his inglorious fall. O'Neal could have become a role model but his abrasive leadership style was his undoing. He started by dismantling Merrill Lynch's employee-centric culture because he saw it as an obstacle to competition. He engineered a culture where employees not only furiously competed with outsiders but with each other. People worked in a team but not as a team. O'Neal himself was inaccessible. The "circle of safety" had been withdrawn. No employee was safe but then again, neither was the leader. Once the protection the leader was to offer was taken away, the leader too found himself vulnerable and alone. Support evaporated and he stood isolated and abandoned.

In smaller establishments, the leader's inability to be a team player has a far more regressive consequence. Employees are simply unable to stand up to the toxic atmosphere. The alternative they face is resignation or dismissal.

How a company defines its work culture lies at the heart of employee productivity and thus, the company's performance. In toxic work environments, where employees constantly feel berated and belittled, a sense of "we" is lacking.

[T]o tolerate the undermining of one's dignity is the ultimate betrayal: me from myself. It is the time to quit and to isolate the ineffective and bad boss.

Despite considerable evidence that a toxic work environment only works against itself, many organisations persist in leadership styles where employees are made to feel belittled and as if they are under-performers. Consequently, they are no longer able to identify with company objectives. The inability to recognise this is a leadership failure.

For employees, to continue in such a surrounding is a suffering that can never lead to equanimity or peace. It lies at the core of much unhappiness that we actually end up taking home. It starts to intrude not only on our waking hours but also in our dreams! It impacts not only us but our families and our friends because all we can think of is how unhappy we are.

Toxic work environments are unhealthy for emotional wellbeing. While it is true that many are forced to continue because of economic compulsions, to tolerate the undermining of one's dignity is the ultimate betrayal: me from myself. It is the time to quit and to isolate the ineffective and bad boss.

Amit Dasgupta, a retired Indian diplomat, is working on his new book 'Why We Fail'

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