Stories abound regarding “killer bosses”; leaders who are categorically feared. Popular television shows such as The Office and cartoons like Dilbert highlight the perils of such ineptitude and insensitivity, and paint a troublesome portrait of what work within these organizations would be like for employees. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs also has real-life transferability. This article explores the extent of this issue and also provides a sobering tale around the tremendous costs that this type of toxic leadership can have on our productivity as well as on our physical health.
Trust in Leadership
A poll conducted last year by Maritz Research provides a chilling overview of workforce attitudes toward the executive leaders of organizations. According to this research, only 11 percent of employees strongly agree with the statement that their managers “walk the talk” by demonstrating consistency between their words and actions. Only seven percent of respondents strongly agreed that their senior leaders look out for their employees’ best interest. Similarly, about 20% of employees disagree that the leaders of their organizations are completely honest and ethical, while one quarter (25%) reported that in times of uncertainty, they do not trust management to make the right decisions. As one can imagine, these attitudes can negatively impact the functioning of the organization.
Impacts on Performance
Lamenting about leadership is a very common occurrence within organizations. Recent research conducted by badbossology.com found that most employees spend 10 or more hours of work time per month complaining, or listening to others complain, about bad boss behaviour. Almost one-third spend 20 hours or more per month on this activity. With work time being spent complaining about leadership, workplace morale and productivity invariably suffers.
In fact, previous research by the Gallup Organization, which has keenly documented the links between problematic leadership and negative outcomes, estimates that these types of challenges cost U.S. companies approximately $360 billion in lost productivity each year. Furthermore, one of Gallup’s most infamous conclusions, based on research with millions of employees from thousands of organizations around the world, is that the most important reason employees leave organizations is because of poor relationships with their direct manager.
On the flip side, research has also demonstrated the performance benefits of working for an effective supervisor. The Maritz research data shows that 58 percent of respondents who reported a high level of trust in their management were completely satisfied with their job. This figure contrasted to just 4% of those who had weak trust in management.
Employees with healthy and productive relationships with their supervisors also showed more commitment to their organization. In the same study, almost two-thirds of employees reported that they would be happy to spend the remainder of their careers with their present company compared to 7 percent for those who reported weak trust in management. These feelings also permeate the degree to which employees are willing to invest in their employer. More than half (51%) who mentioned a high level of trust in their management noted that they would invest in their company. This contrasted greatly with the 6% of employees with weak levels of management trust who reported they would invest in their employer. Finally, for those with high levels of management trust, 50 percent responded they look forward to coming to work every day. Only three percent of respondents who had weak levels of management trust reported the same.
In the classic text, First Break All The Rules (1999), which was based on this research, Buckingham and Coffman reported that employees who agreed with the statement “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person” were significantly more productive, contributed more to profits, and had a significantly higher desire to remain with the organization.
A similar study, involving a partnership between MIT and IBM consultants, examined the impacts of boss-employee relationships on performance by looking at an estimated gain in revenue. Researchers concluded that consultants who reported stronger and healthier relationships with their managers brought in monthly revenues that were $588 above the company average to IBM.
Impacts on Physical Health
The impacts of a “bad boss” are not just limited to our productivity or performance. Several recent studies have shown that problematic relationships with our supervisors can lead to damaging impacts on our physical health.
In one of the first studies to examine this question, a team of British researchers took advantage of a naturally occurring experiment to map out these effects more directly. In particular, they were given access to a group of employees who worked for two different supervisors on alternate days. The employees in whom they were most interested had a positive relationship with one supervisor and a negative one with the other. In an innovative twist, they decided to measure the blood pressure of the employees on the alternating days. What they found was truly remarkable in that on the days that they worked with the “bad boss”, their employees’ blood pressure shot up significantly. This preliminary research sheds some light on the potential costs of these relationships on employees.
This work was extended by another group of researchers whose objective was to obtain a more precise look at the longer-term effects of this toxic leadership exposure. In their research, they followed up employees over a 15-year period to examine the link between quality of boss relationship and the eventual emergence of coronary heart disease (CHD).
Their results were both troubling and striking. They reported that employees who had a difficult relationship with their boss (exhibited by lack of autonomy, clarity, emotional support, etc.) were 30 percent more likely to develop CHD. These results are even more impressive when you consider this relationship was maintained even after controlling for major risk factors including perceived workload, activity level, education, social class, income and supervisory status.
The above column highlights an area of consideration for those of us who are faced with a “killer boss” at work on a daily basis. Although we may try to rationalize why things are “not so bad” and that we just need to “stick it out”, the research to date indicates that by doing so we may be putting ourselves at risk. Conversely, working for effective and engaged leaders can lead to increased morale and productivity, while creating an environment that fosters growth and achievement. Being cognizant of how the quality of leadership affects us is essential for maintaining and enhancing our professional and personal well-being.
Craig Dowden, Ph.D.
André Filion & Associates Inc.