What to do if you manage a bad boss

A great boss is alert to weak signals and signs of discontent in the workplace, writes Michelle Gibbings.

The root cause of challenging workplace dynamics is usually not down to one person or one incident; everyone plays a part. None more so than the senior leader, who sets the standard by what they accept and address.

The Great Places to Work Institute found that trust between managers and employees is a defining characteristic of organisations that are listed in their annual ‘100 Best Companies to Work for’ list.  Similarly, a study by Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance at the London Business School, found that the top companies to work for increased their share value by 50 percent.

Despite research extolling the benefits, Gallup found 82 percent of employees see their leaders as uninspiring, only 15 percent of employees are engaged at work, and only one in three employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organisation. There’s work to be done.

Improving the culture and uplifting leader effectiveness fails when senior leaders aren’t role modelling leadership.

Their words and on occasions, actions, will come across as hypocritical. At the same time, employees will wonder whether there’s any point raising issues, given the state of the senior leader’s leadership.

For progress to happen, it’s essential for the senior leader to be trustworthy, connected, respected and a leadership exemplar.

A great boss is alert to weak signals and signs of discontent in the workplace. Then they’ll dig, check and inquire into what might be going on, so they can validate the rumbles and rumours, before acting with integrity and purpose.

Sense checking starts with informal and formal data sources. Informal sources include such things as anecdotal comments from direct reports, colleagues and team members.

Formal feedback includes data from engagement results, 360 feedback assessments, as well as performance metrics such as productivity, staff turnover, absenteeism, stress levels and any formal complaints.

Uncovering the root cause starts with a straightforward question: “I want to ensure I am bringing out the best in your leadership, so what more do you need to be the best leader you can be?”

This question isn’t just useful when the leader thinks their direct report’s leadership is off track. It’s a great question to ask to ensure everything stays on track.

The intent behind this approach is to encourage sharing and reflecting on what’s working and not working.

Uncovering these reasons may take time and involve several conversations.

Is it stress? Is it the culture? Are they in a role that doesn’t bring out their best? Do they lack technical or professional competence?  Do they not have the right team and enough resources?

As their leader, are you not doing enough, or are you contributing to the problem? You may find that the root cause is vast, and a mixture of several elements.

The best leaders proactively seek feedback and continually assess their effectiveness. They critically reflect on what’s going on and how they’re coping.

With such awareness, they are better able to notice the impact they are having on those around them. This takes courage and often requires support.

The decision on the best strategy forward will depend on the root cause.

As the senior leader, you may need to spend more time coaching or address any structural and cultural issues that are contributing to the direct report’s behavioural gaps.

There will likely be clear steps required to close the gap between their actual leadership and their desired leadership.

As part of this process, it’s essential to work with your direct report to build a plan on how they will close those gaps, shift their perspective, and advance their leadership.

Encourage them to create their personal playbook filled with strategies and tactics that put them in the best possible position to lead with integrity, authenticity and courage, and in turn, create healthy, thriving workplaces.

All of this takes time and effort, so you need to determine how much you are willing to invest and be sure that your direct report is willing to do likewise.

Being willing to do that won’t automatically catapult a leader into a ‘good boss’ category.  It does, however, make them someone who’s interested and invested in being the best leader they can be.  And that’s the first step in progress.

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, working with global leaders to build workplaces where leaders and employees thrive. She is the author of the new book Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one. www.michellegibbings.com.

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