Stop Toxic Managers Before They Stop You
Gillian Flynn | Monster
October 01, 2008
You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. The manager who bullies, threatens, yells. The manager whose mood swings determine the climate of the office on any given workday. Who forces employees to whisper in sympathy in cubicles and hallways. The backbiting, belittling boss from hell. Call it what you want: poor interpersonal skills, unfortunate office practices, but some people, by sheer, shameful force of their personalities, make working for them rotten. We call them toxic managers. Their results may look fine on paper, but the fact is, all is not well if you have one loose in your workforce: It’s unhealthy, unproductive and will eventually undo HR’s efforts to create a healthy, happy and progressive workplace.
Why Are Some Managers Toxic, and Why Should HR Care?
The looming question surrounding toxic managers is: Why are there so many? In these days of enlightened management, with so much emphasis on communication, interaction and valuing people, why does this breed still exist? In large part, it’s because our bottom lines allow it. Companies often don’t have a means of rating managers outside of productivity. If a supervisor is churning out the widgets, the questions are kept to a minimum.
“The biggest single reason is because it’s tolerated,” says Lynne McClure, a Mesa, Arizona-based expert on managing high-risk behaviors and author of Risky Business (Haworth Press, 1996), a book on workplace-violence prevention. She believes if a company has toxic managers, it’s because the culture enables it, knowingly or unknowingly through plain old apathy.
Certain work situations foster toxic managers. When a company has gone through downsizings, pay freezes or other financial crises, negative management tends to thrive. The emphasis is often on get-tough turnaround, and as such higher-ups often turn a blind eye to crude management as long as the numbers are good. Similarly, employees are less likely to speak up about their rotten bosses; they don’t want to sound like whiners or risk their jobs.
Of course, some people are just going to be miserable to work for no matter what. Yet they end up as managers because they’re good employees whose companies lack another way of rewarding them. “There are some people who simply should not be promoted to management,” says Deb Haggerty, head of Orlando, Florida-based Positive Connections, a consulting firm that teaches employees how to deal with personality differences. “Just because someone is a brilliant engineer doesn’t mean they’ll be a brilliant manager. Yet that’s too often how a company demonstrates status.”
So a person is difficult to work for; is that really an HR concern? Of course it is, and for several reasons. At the very least, there’s the morale issue. Bad managers tend to infect their departments with bad attitudes. It’s like a disease: They spread despair, anger and depression, which show up in lackluster work, absenteeism and turnover. Workplace guru Tom Bay has written an entire book about how ideas and moods can aid or sabotage the workplace, Change Your Attitude: Creating Success One Thought at a Time. He believes it’s toxic managers, and the cultures that enable them, that are at the core of today’s job-hopping phenomenon. “Turnover is the highest it’s ever been,” he says. “Employees don’t feel appreciated.”