Mr. Better Boss

Rule 1 in the management game is to treat workers with respect


When Debbie once questioned her boss about the thinking behind an event for their company and whether it was the best use of resources, he belittled her in front of the executive staff, saying she wasn't the one who signed the paychecks.

No one dared to question his thinking for the rest of the meeting. And all but one staff member who witnessed the exchange left within a year, largely due to his behavior.

So that boss had to recruit, hire and train a new management staff. His bad behavior cost him years of experience and talent.

And he still rules with fear: No one who attended that meeting would speak for attribution.

Such scenarios play out daily, leadership experts say. Bad-boss behavior costs billions of dollars annually in turnover, customer satisfaction, profitability and revenue growth, says Rich Wellins of Development Dimensions International.

Wellins, who is senior vice president of the Pittsburgh-based human resource consulting firm, says not enough companies are investing the resources to build better bosses.

"It's an economic problem as well as a company problem," Wellins says.

Sure, there was a day 25 to 30 years ago when bosses could point to their signature on a paycheck and say, "My way or the highway." But those days are gone, says Susan Zacur, a member of the human resource management faculty at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business and co-director of its MBA leadership and organizational specialization.

"I think employees are simply more sophisticated today," Zacur says.

They have more education and more employers fighting for their talent, thanks to a shrinking labor pool. And they're not willing to settle for a dictatorial -- or mediocre -- boss.

"Your best people will be the first to leave," Zacur says, "because they have the most options."

Now, no one is out to bash bosses. It's tough being in charge, Wellins says, particularly today. Bosses get less support. Employee expectations have risen. And workers don't have the same emotional attachment to the workplace or "obedience to authority" that they had several years ago.

"It's a tough job out there for leaders today," Wellins says. "I don't want to be critical of leaders. They have a lot to face."

But the fact remains that bosses have some across-the-board behaviors that drive employees wild. Witness a recent online survey by DDI and its partner When asked what they'd fire their bosses for, the 1,062 respondents complained about bosses they couldn't trust, bosses who micromanaged them, bosses who didn't give them opportunities to grow and bosses who took credit for their employees' work and ideas.

Treating employees with little or no respect is probably the No. 1 complaint workers have about their supervisors, experts say. Some bosses belittle employees' ideas, refuse to delegate work, rarely ask employees what they're thinking.

"They don't get out there and mix it up," says Mark Murphy, chairman and chief executive of Leadership IQ in Washington and author of The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention. "Less than a quarter of managers say, `In the last three months I've sat down and had a conversation with my folks,'" Murphy says.

But come on. Bosses are busy. Aren't workers being a little too hard on them?

No, says Allen Hatton, founder and president of Executive Development Group in Ellicott City. "I don't think employees have unrealistic expectations at all. If you're the manager, then manage."

That, though, may be the problem. "We have just absolutely horrible management training at all levels of business," Hatton says.

That's because most people are trained to do a specific job. When they excel at that job, they're moved into management as a reward. But management usually has nothing to do with what the new boss excelled at. And, typically, no one offers training.

"There's a very specific skill set" to management, Zacur says. "But so many people haven't had training, and they tend to think, `I know how to tell people what to do.'"

Tough words. Tough situations. Yet if all this sounds like a recipe for despair, it's not. The good news is that bad boss behavior can be reversed. It just takes some effort by both employers and their workers.

First, bosses need to stop assuming that complaints are just the runoff from a few disgruntled workers, experts say. Instead, they need to look for themes: Are there a number of grievances? Is absenteeism up? Are projects not completed on time? Are deadlines consistently missed? Any "yes" indicates a boss' behavior may have veered off course.

To correct the problem, supervisors need to start meeting with and listening to their workers, Hatton says. Ask what they think, what they need to do their jobs.

Ask, too, what motivates employees, Murphy says. What drives them? Excellent managers make personal connections and build good will just by taking the time to listen.

Training is also crucial. Bosses need to find out what kind of management or leadership training their companies offer. They need to read books. They need to find coaches, Zacur says, either through their companies or on their own.

"I think the organization has an obligation," adds Wellins. "Leadership is a career."

As for employees?

"I think you should confront bad boss behavior," Wellins says. And while that's risky ("You always run the risk of being fired," Hatton says), employees can avoid a backlash.

When talking to a boss:

Don't attack. Employees should stay focused on their concerns and on behaviors that bother them rather than threatening to quit or accusing the boss of being a tyrant.

Be balanced. Most bosses have good days as well as bad. Workers who want to see change need to refer to both.

Be specific. Tell how the boss -- not just the employees -- will benefit from a behavior change.

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