Bad Leadership Up Close and Personal: A Case Study

If there is one thing that is true in my life it is this: The Man and I are exact opposites in every way. I like steak; he likes ground beef. I order my meat so rare the kitchen can just drag it through a warm oven; he orders it so well-done they should toss it in an open fire until it’s black. I’m supremely casual; he’s super structured.

And then there’s work.

I’m a work-to-live kind of girl. The Man lives to work. The Man’s natural habitat is the office. Vacations? Stress him out. Because he’s not at work.

And so it was with a gaping jaw that I stared at The Man recently as he muttered under his breath, “I hope my boss gets hit by a car this weekend…”

This was a moment so out-of-character, he may as well have unzipped his skin and revealed himself to be a cyborg.

People Leave Bosses, Not Jobs

We’ve all heard that before, and a recent Gallup survey found that half of American workers have at some point in their lives left a job because of a manager.

I knew The Man been assigned to a new supervisor a few months ago. I also knew he hadn’t been looking forward to the new reporting relationship. But I hadn’t realized quite how bad the situation really was until those words came out of his mouth.

This is a guy who’s been in the workforce for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. He’s no tender flower. For most of those years, he worked for a multinational company that expected 60-hour workweeks. Which he put in. Joyfully.

Me: “Hit by a car, huh?  Wow… sounds like you are really upset with your boss,” I said, recognizing a problem when I heard one and shifting into active listening. bad leadership training

Him (AKA, The Man): “He’s doing that thing where he tells you what to do and how to do it. And he treats everybody like dirt.”

Me: “So your boss is micromanaging you and also treats your colleagues poorly,  which upsets you,” I reflected back.

Him: “Yeah. For instance, I take notes in meetings on a notepad. You know. A paper one. Like I always have. Forever. He literally stopped a meeting today to tell me, in front of the whole group, that this annoys him to no end. And it’s not that it affects anything tangible. Nothing. He just doesn’t like it because…well, he doesn’t. Everybody else takes notes on a laptop. So what? I don’t. I take notes on paper. It’s not that I don’t remember what’s been discussed in meetings. I’ve never been unprepared. It doesn’t affect the quality of my work. This is just how I do things. I’m not going to change now and I don’t really see how it affects him in the slightest.”

Me: “Well, it sounds like you feel he’s attempting to exercise his authority over you for no particular reason other than he just doesn’t like it, I said.”

He nodded. “Which reminds me of another thing. The nodding thing.”

Me: “The nodding thing…can you say more about that?”

Him: “We were in a meeting a couple of weeks ago, again, in a big group. He was talking about some work that had to be done and I was nodding to acknowledge that I understood what he was saying. He looked straight at me and said, ‘I don’t need you to nod. I need you to understand.’”

Holy Roadblock Number 8, Batman.

“And then there’s the thing he pulled about a month ago. We all have unique responsibilities and it’s a small department. In a different meeting, he was presenting and put up a slide with all of the things we do. He left one box unchecked on a slide and said we were doing great on everything that was checked. We all know exactly who’s responsible for the unchecked box. It was a very public insult. And besides, the rest of us don’t agree; we respect the person responsible for the unchecked box and the work he does. The boss just has it out for him for some reason. It was incredibly uncomfortable.”

We kept talking. He’s concerned because his last performance review, under his last boss, was stellar. But he’s concerned about what the next one, under this one, who definitely sounds like a workplace bully, may look like.

I asked if there’s anybody he can talk to about his concerns. “Well, if I thought HR was on the employees’ side, I might go to them. But I’m not sure, and that’s the worst part of it.”

I expect if things don’t improve—and if that performance review isn’t as glowing as last year’s—he may start looking for a new gig. And that’s just sad. Because he was happy in this job until he was placed in this reporting relationship.

This, sadly, is the state of the workplace when bad leaders are tolerated and indulged. When they aren’t first educated about and then held accountable for creating an emotionally healthy emotional workplace. The costs to the organization are unnecessary turnover, lack of employee engagement, and poor productivity.

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