Updated: Mar 3
A top-down bully culture will invariably create chaos and loss when senior management is unwilling to work with functional and people managers regarding the "how" and "when".
Your organizational culture is determined by the behaviours, attitudes and belief systems that are reinforced and role modeled, every day, by leaders. Those who serve in people manager roles are the front line representatives of this for your operational teams and staff. But they are not seen as alone in setting the cultural tone. If you, as a senior executive, are role modeling negative or abusive behaviours to your own teams, your people managers will often follow suit. They see, correctly, that those are the behaviours that create success in your organization, you being a perfect case in point.
This can quickly turn a good manager into a bad one. Of all the Bad Manager scenarios I hear about, witness or experience, there is one that comes up more often than all the others put together. It goes like this.
The people manager is getting tons of pressure from above to constantly “do more with less”. In real life this means the department has “do more of” things like productivity, efficiency, and product/service quality, with “less or no additional” people, money, tools, time or other resources. If the manager either doesn’t know how to or won’t push back, they may begin by sacrificing their personal life and start working early, late, through holidays and on weekends. This only adds to their stress, fatigue, frustration, burnout and disengagement.
Very soon, their personal productivity, efficiency, and product/service quality suffers. More and more of the manager's time is taken up being an individual contributor, rather than being a manager and leader. They deadlines slip. Balls get dropped. Planning goes out the window, because everyone has to focus on getting things done. The team feels there is no one in the wheelhouse. The manager knows they are going to pay for this when it comes to performance review time, but believes they have no choice but to go into constant crisis mode management.
Despite the fact that should lead to a conversation with their own manager, this manager realizes, through cultural history, that it would be a waste of time, and might actually result in punitive measures. So, the manager pecks down on the team, demanding all the same “more with less”. And the results are the same. The entire bench undergoes identical, accelerating and growing stress, fatigue, burnout and disengagement. Top performers may suffer the most, because they often bear the brunt of the increased demands. Average performers start to buckle. New employees give a collective “whoa”, as their promised training, coaching and mentoring evaporates. Some blame the company. Some blame the manager. Some blame themselves. Some do all three.
Quick list of what can happen next:
Everybody puts their resume on the street.
Top talent flies out the door, often to your direct competition. Fact is, people quit their managers far more often than they quit their jobs. How to know? Is their new job the same as the old job in a better cultural environment? If so, they did not quit their job, because they are still doing it, just not for you.
Increasing workload gets shared out among the remaining staff, making things worse.
Backlog spirals up. Productivity, efficiency, and product/service quality spiral down. Now upper management gets directly involved. Havoc ensues. Fingers are pointed. Blame is allocated. No-stick shields are activated wherever possible.
The manager and the company are seen as evil by employees, both within and outside the department, and this gets socialized – both informally and on websites like Glass Door®, by former employees. Your company gets blacklisted by the potential talent pool you need to attract to succeed and grow.
Customers don’t get served. You lose them. Senior management also does not get served. Bad news for the bad manager.
The bad manager gets fired for poor performance, but not before the bad manager has scapegoated and fired some of their own people who are failing through no fault of their own.
Lots of new employees are hired. But, because they are new, they can’t hit the ground running. The reality is that, while orientation (here’s your workstation) takes a few days, onboarding (you are now fully productive) can take months. Everything gets worse in the meantime.
Human resources costs go up and up. Ask yourself, how much does it really cost to replace a professional grade employee? Don’t forget to include the costs associated with the rest of the team not producing at top speeds because they are training, coaching and mentoring the new arrivals, thus not doing their own work. Also don’t forget all that time you have an empty workstation waiting for a new occupant. Want some figures? A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress found the cost of replacing an employee can look like this:
16% of annual salary for high-turnover, low-paying jobs (earning under $30,000 a year). For example, the cost to replace a $10/hour retail employee could be $3,328.
20% of annual salary for midrange positions (earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year). For example, the cost to replace a $40k manager could be $8,000.
Up to 213% percent of annual salary for executive positions. For example, the cost to replace someone earning $100k could be $213,000.
People on your team start getting sick because of the unrelenting stress of an increasingly toxic workplace; sporadically, then seriously, and for a while. Some come into work while sick. More people get sick.
Bottom line: nobody, at any level, gets what they wanted.
So, where does the buck stop in this nightmare? Ultimately, with the senior management that created this situation. If senior management brings increased demands along with a “do more with less” attitude, and are unwilling to have rational conversations about the how, it will be up to the functional and people managers to decide what to do. What should happen is that they will push back with hard evidence right from the get go. This will be presented calmly and thoroughly. The language used must focus on the positive things everyone wants: productivity, efficiency, and product/service quality, along with reciprocity – “In order for us to get this, we need that”. If, instead, the language focuses on negative words and phrases like fatigue, burnout, disengagement, and too much work, it just sounds like whining.
Note to employees – if you are having this conversation with your own manager, the same applies.
Further note to managers – very, very few of your employees can or will do this. They will just work until they snap, and you will lose them.
If senior management listens, none of the nightmare happens. If senior management is indifferent or hostile to reasonable discussion and wants to be the big bully, the manager has some choices:
Become the little bully to the team
Be honest and candid with the team, look for efficiencies, track everything, and make the best of a bad situation
Make a career decision.
If the manager decides on being the little bully, the scenario plays out. They have just stepped on the mother of all rakes, and the outcome is swift and hard.
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