The Dangers & Signs Of A Bad Boss

The Dangers & Signs Of A Bad Boss

A few years back I worked for a truly toxic, broken retailer. Their people promotion criteria was extremely flawed and – objectively – bizarre. Their store staffing model was awful and counter to any acceptable level of customer experience delivery. Their executive leadership and senior-level leadership was, frankly, pernicious. They hired and retained people that severely lacked integrity or any sort of moral center. There were no organizational values. There was no vision other than some blurry “intersection of something and something” phrase. However, like in any fractured environment, there were a few really great people who I was [and am] always happy to help and support after I separated with the organization.

According to a McKinsey study, 59% of employees would be “delighted” if managers dealt with problem employees, but only 7% of those responding to employee surveys believed their companies were actually doing it.

Interestingly, I had conversations with several people over the last few weeks weeks and they all cited the same “manager” from this organization in a less than flattering light. One of them, unfortunately, still reports directly to this “manager” and a few others separated from the company anywhere from six months to two years ago because of this “manager”.  This mid-manager’s modus operandi was very consistent and pervasive throughout their entire “team” and has been the accepted behavior for the last five years:

  • They Randomly Played Favorites: This “boss” selected favorites that were easily manipulated to do her bidding. She adopted short-term favorites when it suited her but would quickly turn on them if they challenged her in any way. She would use personal requests and life-stages to force people out of the company whom she did not like. For example; denying a Saturday off so that someone could attend a family member’s wedding. It would leave people who were on her “list” to believe they had no alternative but to quit – constructively discharging them because she recognized she did not have legitimate reasons to terminate them. The team consistently lacked trust and cohesiveness due to this “manager’s” random shifts in mood and people preferences.

  • They Were A Yenta Of Dangerous Proportions: They  gossiped about store managers to other store managers. They gossiped about executive leadership to people in the stores. They would share personal information that was told to them in confidence with anyone who would listen – down to part-time stock team members. The only thing this person was, seemingly, unaware of  was that most people were sharing these communications with the focus(es) of her gossip which – ultimately – empowered a few strong people to take a stand.
  • They Zealously Looked For Mistakes: Instead of setting direction on customer experience and inspiring and motivating positive performance and career development, this leader was constantly watching people, looking for errors and coming down hard, publicly when people made mistakes or didn’t conform in a desirable way. This behavior is unfortunately most common at the District Manager level in retail [especially inside distressed retail organizations] and is known as “Transactional Leadership” [or Management-By-Exception], this is where the leader focuses primarily on what is going wrong, rather than encouraging positive behaviors and recognizing strong performance. As a result, people are constantly on guard, cautious and anxious around “visits”, and spending the majority of their energy on trying to not make mistakes instead of focusing on forward-moving efforts.
  • They Interrupted The Life Of The Store Managers: This “manager” was known for texting and calling managers when they were not in the business and expecting a response or that they answer their phone. A leader should embody what the team stands for, and should be an active, accessible, and involved member of the team. Instead, this boss would frequently be unavailable or “too busy” during the work day and then create urgency, chaos, and confusion when the store leaders weren’t in the business and making them feel guilty for taking a day off.

  • They Were Teflon For Many Years: More than a year ago I encouraged one of my former colleagues who worked under this person to document the behavior and the dialogs with this mid-level manager as it was absolutely creating a hostile work environment for him and his team. He did, but as the only voice courageous enough to speak up – the company’s HR person decided not to take action and had a “this will pass” approach to the issue.  This caused others to stay quiet as they believed nothing would improve and that the only result in surfacing their experience would be retaliation.

Fast forward to four weeks ago and this manager’s behavior had become so ubiquitous that a few fearless people decided to speak up, surface their concerns and present solid documentation of bad behavior, collectively. HR was now unable to sweep this issue under the, proverbial, rug and this mid-level manager was separated from the business early this week. As I was the recipient of no fewer than ten very enthusiastic text messages within 20 minutes of the field receiving the news – there was an immediate improvement in the work atmosphere that they were energized by.

A Great Boss = Strong People Engagement & Customer Experience

Bad Bosses Negate Other “Stuff” The Organization Delivers: Nothing that a company institutes to increase employee engagement: excellent rewards, exciting career paths, stimulating work environments, learning & development programs, great health insurance, and other perks or benefits will make much difference to the people who are stuck with bad bosses.

Great Bosses Lead Employees to Increased Revenue: As many studies have shown, there’s a strong and direct correlation between employee engagement, customer happiness, and revenue growth:

  • HBR published a study conducted by Anthony Rucci, Steven Kirn, and Richard Quinn that identified “the employee-customer-profit chain” at Sears. This was a straightforward dynamic in which employee behavior affected customer behavior, which in turn affected company financial performance. Specifically, in Sears’ case, when employee satisfaction improved by 5%, customer satisfaction improved by 1.3%, which led to a .05% improvement in revenue. That might not sound significant, but for $50 billion Sears, that that came to an extra $250 million in sales revenue.
  • I have cited in a few of my past articles that HBR once reported that at Best Buy the value of a 0.1% increase in employee engagement in a singular store is $100,000 in added revenue. Those are profound and important metrics to digest and use as a catalyst for a focus on people and engagement regardless of industry or size of business.

Investing in leadership and career development not only pays off, it’s absolutely fundamental to getting the most out of other investments in workplace effectiveness and the highest productivity from your people. Engagement is a renewable daily decision that people make when their company and their leadership has proven worthy of it.

Leaders who don’t know how [or deliberately choose not] to meet the engagement needs of their team become an obstacle to people, team, and organizational performance. And a disturbingly high percentage of leaders around the world are not meeting the needs of their employees. Actively disengaged employees [24% of the workforce] outnumber actively engaged employees [13% of the workforce] by nearly 2-to-1, according to Gallup, implying that – consistently, for most people – work is more often a source of frustration than fulfillment.

Also according to the fabulous people at Gallup; compared with disengaged teams, engaged teams show 24% to 59% less turnover, 10% higher customer ratings, 21% greater profitability, 17% higher productivity, 28% less shrinkage, 70% fewer safety incidents and 41% less absenteeism which save companies huge amounts of money quarterly and annually. When people become engaged by their leader, work feels very different, empowering, and rewarding for them.

Making A Leader Out Of A Bad Manager

Unfortunately, there are still moldy and antiquated managers out there who profoundly lack an elemental understanding of effective people management and they need assistance – now. Here are two important points to support their development to 21st century human leadership:

Help Them Understand That They Are The Performance & Environment Barometer For Their People: Helping them understand the context for the atmosphere starts with their emotional intelligence. “Managers” who struggle to meet the engagement needs of their people very often feel as though most basic circumstances and functions are out of their control. You will hear this person assign blame around soft performance and high turn-over with excuses such as; volatile market conditions, limited|qualified candidates or socioeconomic issues in their markets, budget cuts, Amazon, foot traffic…I could go on for hours. If a team’s engagement suddenly drops or steadily declines, leaders should examine the manager’s constructed work environment; conduct surveys, solicit feedback from their people – conditions can absolutely improve with timely and radically honest interventions.

Seeing a job from the manager’s perspective can shed light on a team’s engagement issues and determine if there are true, systemic or self-imposed barriers facing the team or if the source of disengagement can be rooted in one bad manager’s attitude. Context is always important – from the first engagement measurement and moving forward, leaders need to know why their people are engaged or disengaged. But if survey results show a sudden drop in engagement, leaders should be aware that something in the environment has drastically changed and – let’s face it – it usually starts with the leader.

Make “Engagement” Part Of The Leadership Conversation: The fact is that we rarely discuss or define tangible “engagement” outcomes. We talk about results, productivity, and performance but we don’t often include, or tie, this into the conversation about how engagement impacts business levers. Few managers are ever developed in the skills set of how to engage employees or measure engagement before the company is in distress and begins looking at where they stand as a global business unit. And because most leaders lack the ability to deliver on-going and honest candor around performance of their direct reports, most junior-level managers believe they are meeting organizational expectations and don’t see the need for change.

If managers who don’t know how to manage people can be developed to understand the effect of their behavior on the engagement of their people, they should start to adapt their performance, communication, and choose their behaviors and actions wisely to be more aligned with positive productivity, company vision, and positive values. And if their teams aren’t afforded the opportunity to safely and confidentially provide feedback on their managers, the company is silently endorsing poor leadership standards.. If these standard improvements don’t alter or elevate the managers leadership competencies – it’s time to start the performance documentation process.

Employing the strategy of hope when dealing with bad manager is the best way to erode your top performers productivity and rapidly exit them from the organization. In my many years as a retailer, I have heard a lot of excuses as to why problem managers aren’t dealt with. These excuses have ranged anywhere the “that’s just the way they are“ to stating “but our company is like a family” which allows for a higher [albeit irresponsible] tolerance around not-so-great behavior or terrible performance.

Successful organizations and leaders are pathologically honest with their people and allow for that honesty in return. Great teams are collaborative, productive, and demand a lot from each other. Executive and senior level leaders and HR Representatives that choose to ignore all of the warning signs and make excuses for, refuse to address, or fail to actively work towards resolving employee issues own the challenges of their organization and own the responsibility of now fixing it or dealing with the consequences of it.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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