Podcast: How to Handle a Bad Boss
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Leadership Careers Aug 4, 2015

Podcast: How to Handle a Bad Boss

Insecure leaders can sabotage productivity.

How to deal with a bad boss depends on the situation.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Jon Maner

James B. Shein

Listening: Kellogg Insight Bad Bosses
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Of all the annoyances the workday can entail—that too-early alarm, rush-hour traffic, late nights stuck at your desk on deadline—having a bad boss can be the most insidious.

“Nobody wants to go to work when they don’t get along with their boss,” says Jon Maner, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “It really weighs on people’s everyday life.”

Maner has studied bad bosses, with the goal of understanding their behavior so that it can be curtailed. He has focused in particular on power-hungry bosses who are surprisingly willing to sideline their best-performing employees—and promote incompetent team members—in order to keep themselves from being outshined. (You can read more about Maner’s research into why bad bosses sabotage their teams here.)

“Top performers are really, really valuable members of the group,” Maner says. “These are the people who are often innovating, they’re creating, they’re pushing the organization forward. That can make power-hungry bosses nervous because these are the people who are probably the most able to take over some of their power.”

And, of course, bad bosses are not simply unpleasant for employees. They also can be disastrous for companies.

James Shein, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School, has seen power-hungry bosses ruin company after company. This is particularly true when a company is failing and the CEO needs to change course to salvage the organization.

“A sitting CEO has a very difficult time making changes because, to them, it often means, ‘I must have done something wrong previously,’” Shein says. This is when a board needs to step in to find a new leader.

“If you don’t push them out, they often will just keep driving the company down into the dirt,” he says.

You can hear more from Maner and Shein about what motivates bad bosses and how to keep them in check in this month’s Insight in Person podcast.


[Music prelude]

Sound bytes from people we talked to in downtown Evanston

“She’s a bully. She just pushes and pushes and pushes to get her way — not just with me, but with everyone she comes in contact with.”

“He’s a fantastic engineer. He’s not a good manager, and he’s sort of a robot and doesn’t exactly understand human emotions.”

“She pretty much did nothing all day.”

“We all got the hell out of there as quickly as we could.”

Jessica LOVE:Hello, and welcome to Insight in Person, Kellogg Insight’s monthly podcast, produced by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I’m your host, Jessica Love.

This month’s topic is bad bosses: What makes some managers ineffective—even toxic—and how can you avoid bringing the wrong kinds of leaders into your organization?

You’ll hear from two Kellogg School professors who have studied bad bosses, as well as some more bad-boss horror stories from people we chatted with in downtown Evanston. So stay with us.

[Music interlude]

Jon MANER:There’s nothing worse than having a bad boss. It makes your time in the office really painful. It makes getting up in the morning tough.

LOVE:That’s Jon Maner of the Kellogg School. If what he just said raised your blood pressure by reminding you of your own boss, we’re sorry. But you’re not alone. Maner says he gets emails from strangers who hear about his research into bad bosses and tell him that he just described their own manager perfectly.

While bad bosses come in all flavors, Maner, a professor of management and organizations, has researched a particular type: one who craves power above all else.

MANER:Power-hungry bosses are willing to do a lot of things that are pretty crazy, as it turns out.

LOVE:In his research, Maner has found that leaders who are motivated by power will try to isolate and undermine their top-performing workers in an effort not to be overshadowed by them.

MANER:For example, rather than having people work together who like each other and get along really well, they actually pair together people who don’t like each other and are unlikely to get along mainly because that prevents these very skilled workers from generating alliances or close friendships with others. That makes them feel ganged up on, makes them feel threatened.

LOVE:What is especially astonishing is that these toxic dynamics emerge when research participants are simply assigned to be a boss for the purpose of an experiment.

Here is some more bad-boss behavior:

MANER:Power-hungry bosses are more inclined to promote into roles of influence relatively unskilled members of the organization and to actually demote the most skilled members of the organization. Again it’s sort of like they’re trying to keep these potentially very visible, talented people under their thumb.

We’ve also done studies showing that power-hungry leaders tend to hoard information. This is obviously bad for the organization, but it’s good for the power-hungry boss who wants to keep his or her power.

LOVE:While Maner’s research was conducted in a lab, this phenomenon very much exists in the real world. One good place to find power-hungry bosses? Failing companies.

James Shein, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School, has studied lots of bosses making bad decisions, particularly in turnaround situations.

James Shein:About five-sixths of the time a company fails, it’s due to the hubris or ego of the CEO, who refuses to listen. The power is more important than the decision as to recognizing that they need to change.

LOVE:One bad boss he’s studied—and this is a guy who kicked his own siblings and kids out of the family business to shore up his power—was the CEO of a giant Brazilian retailer (apologies in advance to our Portuguese-speaking listeners for my pronunciation) called Companhia Brasileira de Distribuição, whose flagship chain is Pão de Açucar. The CEO, Abilio dos Santos Diniz, signed an agreement in 2005 with the giant French firm Casino. The agreement gave Casino a 50% stake in a holding company that owned both companies. Diniz would be in charge of this holding company—at first. But he had to cede control of the holding company after seven years.

But guess what? When the transfer of ownership was approaching, Diniz decided he didn’t want to give up control.

SHEIN:Diniz didn’t want to step back, that’s giving up power. So he secretly cut a deal with the CEO of Carrefour, a rival of Casino’s, to cut a whole new deal in a very complex structure that would dilute Casino’s ownership of the combined companies, and of course leave him as the CEO of this new triumvirate.

LOVE:Long international showdown story short: this power play failed when word of the possible merger was leaked to the press. Casino ended up in control of Companhia Brasileira de Distribuição after all. And Diniz was eventually shown the door, albeit a lucrative door.

[Music interlude]

Sound bytes from people we talked to in downtown Evanston:

“We were located in the basement of the headquarters building. There were no windows. There was no light. Anytime we gave any type of recommendation as to how things could be made better, we were just blocked. We were really treated pretty disrespectfully.”

“What made him a bad boss was his inability to ever admit he was wrong about something. It was awful for morale. It was really hard. It created an environment where people felt really closed and didn’t want to take chances.”

“I ignore her. That’s my coping strategy. It’s terrible, though. You know, it doesn’t make me feel good about responding to her that way, and yet I don’t know any other way to do it, and I shut down.”

MANER:People encounter these kinds of bad bosses all the time in their own workplace.

LOVE:That’s John Maner again.

MANER:This is one of the overarching goals of our work—to really gain insight into these very commonplace instances of bad leadership so that we can then turn around and try to combat them.

LOVE:Yes! We agree. Let’s combat bad bosses. But how?

One important strategy to is to push for more accountability and transparency among managers. Maner says leaders should know that their decisions will be public and that they’ll be judged, in part, by how well their team members are performing.

But take care not to go too far. Feeling vulnerable can increase a power-hungry boss’ troublesome behavior. Maner suggests ensuring that bosses don’t feel like their jobs are at risk every minute of every day.

MANER:Surely over the long term you have to hold leaders accountable, but where I think the train can run off the tracks is when leaders feel like any day now they might lose their jobs, and that’s where I think leaders really become worried about other people outshining them.

LOVE:Another strategy is simply to hire better bosses in the first place. Maner’s research looks at the differences between leaders who are motivated by power versus those who are motivated by prestige, meaning they want people to like and respect them.What our work suggests is that people with a real thirst for respect and admiration are probably going to be better bosses than people with a real desire for power and control and authority.

That often means, ironically, picking people who don’t crave power. I think there’s a natural selection by us. When people really want power, they do whatever they can to rise through the hierarchy. Ironically, those aren’t necessarily the best people for the job.

LOVE:This is important to keep in mind if you’re hiring someone to lead a team in your company.

MANER:When you’re interviewing people for particular jobs, really try to get a sense of what drives people and what motivates them. Is it power and authority and control over resources on the one hand or is it respect and admiration on the other hand.

LOVE:Still, before we malign power-hungry bosses too much (and admittedly, that’s what we’ve just been doing), it is important to recognize that power-hungry leaders have their place.

MANER:For example, if there’s an organization that needs to make a unified decision very quickly, there’s no time for all of the members of the organization to deliberate and for it to be a democratic process; a dominance-oriented leader is what you need in that situation because they’re going to make a call and they’re going to go with it.

LOVE:For Shein, the key to turning a boss’ thirst for power into a force for good is to make sure it’s tempered with a bit of humility. This is a hard combination to find.

SHEIN:One of the things we often find with powerful bosses is to always believe whatever they’ve done now and in the recent past must be good because, “I did it.” And what we find is those are the kind of people that have to go. In other words, a sitting CEO has a very difficult time making changes because to them it often means, “I must have done something wrong previously.”

LOVE:That’s where the humility needs to come in.

SHEIN:The best turnaround CEOs are ones that go in, listen to everybody, very quickly get everyone’s opinion, then make a decision: “We’re going to take that hill.” And people who didn’t agree with that decision will start saying things and the CEO will very quickly say, “This is not a democracy. I’ve made this decision.”

But the best leaders are ones who are powerful enough to do that, but to realize if they were headed for the wrong hill, they’re the ones who will say, “Wrong hill, here’s why I think I was wrong, and what we’ve learned tells us to go in this direction.”

LOVE:So does Shein, who has studied bad bosses in many guises, have a bad-boss story of his own? We had to ask. And the answer was yes, with no names revealed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Shein:Once I was designated as his heir apparent by the CEO, next thing I know I was given assignments in areas outside of headquarters because it was a threat to him.

LOVE:A threat to Shein’s boss, that is, a manager who worked under the CEO.

SHEIN:It even showed itself on the social side with an annual get together of executives with wives. I was talking with the CEO, he approached me to talk, and my boss’s wife quickly came over and asked the CEO to dance so he wouldn’t continue to be talking directly to me.

[Music interlude]

LOVE:This program was produced by Jessica Love, Kate Proto, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone and Michael Spikes. Thanks to Kathi Thompson, Kathy Gerber, Drew Mauck, and two people who prefer to remain anonymous for sharing their stories of bad bosses.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes or from our website at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We will be back next month with another Insight In Person podcast.

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