The Truth About Terrible Bosses

I was hunkered down the other day in a windowless conference room with three colleagues, discussing what we enthusiastically refer to at my company as “Talent Management.”

You might think this means we were busy charting Hollywood careers, or perhaps determining how our employees might stack up in an entertainment competition. But no, it’s just the glammed-up version of the function formerly known as Human Resources.

We were considering the promotion of a superstar employee from analyst to department manager.

“You should see this guy whip through a spreadsheet model,” said one.

“He’s the smartest analyst on the team,” declared another.

“Plus he plays a mean blues riff on the guitar,” spoke the third.

As the room swelled with praise for this young man’s astute analytical capabilities, I interjected an innocent-enough question: “Sure, he’s got killer technical skills, but how is he with, you know, people?”

The room fell silent as they began to ponder the obvious.

It’s the oldest story in the business book: Superstar worker gets promoted to manager. He has no people skills whatsoever. No one ever explains what the leader’s role is supposed to look like. And, voila! Not only do you lose a star performer, but you gain a bad manager.

There goes the team.

A friend recently told me that her son quit his job because he couldn’t take his boss’s behavior any more. His manager was gruff, aloof, and constantly nitpicking. One by one, other long-time employees started leaving for the same reason. Now, the temp employees are outnumbering the long-term tribal knowledge.

Everyone knows that people don’t leave bad jobs – they leave bad bosses. According to Stanford business professor Bob Sutton , author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, terrible bosses are the number one reason for turnover. So, imagine the implications when someone can’t leave their bad boss because of economic conditions, or a lack of job prospects: they remain miserable and unproductive.

Despite the hordes of research and anecdotal information, for some mysterious reason most companies appear unwilling or incapable of dealing with this issue.

And then there is Google, who is taking a proactive approach to building a better boss.

For most of its history, Google believed that deep technical expertise was the most important quality in a manger. Whoever knew the most – the best programmer, the smartest analyst — got promoted. The boss’s job, they thought, was to leave people alone, and help solve technical problems if they got stuck.

But in early 2009, when a special-ops Google team known as Project Oxygen surveyed employees to find out what they wanted most from their managers, technical expertise ranked dead last. What employees valued most, they found, were even-keeled bosses who made time for people, who helped solve problems without dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

In other words, people just wanted to know that their manager cared about them.

The managers who were doing this had the most productive teams with the happiest people and least turnover.

Who knew that caring about people was such a powerful management trick? Imagine – something so simple, so human, so deeply spiritual could have such a profound impact on the landscape of business productivity and in the lives of so many people.

I’d like to see someone top that in a talent competition.

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