Bad Bosses – A Plague

For years I’ve been baffled by the ubiquity of bad bosses – and the propensity of people to do nothing about it. Surveys testify to the widespread dissatisfaction with superiors by their subordinates, and plenty of anecdotal evidence is in support. Whenever I ask audience members who among them has never had a “bad boss,” those raising their hands constitute a feeble fraction of the whole.

No question that bad bosses are a phenomenon as malevolent as prevalent.  They harm not only individuals – bad bosses induce bad feelings and bad health – but institutions. The data suggest, for example, that lower rates of productivity are correlated to higher rates of job dissatisfaction.

All of which raises the question of why we continue to tolerate superiors who give subordinates short shrift; employers who treat employees carelessly or callously; bosses who interact with underlings as if, somehow, they were lesser.

Generally, it’s difficult for those with less power and authority to take on those with more, especially in the workplace. Personal and professional costs tend to be high; personal and professional benefits tend to be low.

The solution to the problem then is not at the level of the individual, but at the level of the institution. Specifically, private sector organizations should lead the way by rejecting once and for all the single, dominant metric of corporate performance – shareholder price. Shareholder price has been the yardstick by which corporate leaders have been measured for years. But, as Rana Foroohar points out in the Financial Times, a modest movement’s afoot to add at least one more metric, involvement in significant social and political issues.

But, I would argue that before adding this criterion, there’s another that’s more important. Employers should be judged in considerable measure on their employees’ engagement. Superiors should be judged in considerable measure on their subordinates’ satisfaction. Leaders should be judged in considerable measure on their followers’ fulfillment.

Holding bad bosses accountable for their own bad behavior would go a long way toward ending their iron grip on those otherwise obliged to suffer in silence.


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