THE BLOG

Fighting Back Against the Tyranny of the Manager

10/02/2013 08:56 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

What is going on with the American government isn't about money, it's about a lack of leadership training for politicians and the negative effects of ideology on a problem.

I have a friend; let's call him Alan. He is a stand up kind of fellow, the kind of man you want working in your company: trustworthy, hard working, humorous, and dedicated. Over the summer, we had plenty of interaction and I had always admired his commitment to his company, which he has been at for 13 years. Last month I called him just to chat about an idea I had. When I asked him the standard question "how are you?" he just mumbled "fine." You don't need a doctorate to know this is a bad sign. He has a wife whose health is precarious at best, and so I immediately asked him if he wanted to talk about it.

"Yes... I do. I am leaving my job. Do you have any suggestions of where I could work?" After ensuring that I had heard him correctly, I asked him why. He told me an all-too-familiar story. Over the course of the last few years, he has been managed by the dreaded senior leader. I call them the SLs.

This is the person in the workplace who is not a C-class executive but thinks they can do the job better than any C-class executives. They are nice to their boss, and are tyrants to their subordinates (kiss up, kick down management). I used the word "subordinate" because that is how they view people who they manage. They use the word "team" when in front of HR or a boss, but when you are alone in the office with them they ensure that you know they will ruin your life if you don't do what they want, when they want. In short, they rule by fear.

Please don't think this isn't happening at your workplace. This is a virus that has spread far and wide.

I know because I see it everywhere I look. Over the course of the last two years I have collected over 2,500 journals from employees across North America, as well as conducted quantitative surveys in an effort to continually create better career development products.

I can tell you that SLs are ruining your business. People leave jobs because of the tyranny of the manager. And right now we have a lot of people who are ruling over your employees and using fear as their primary weapon. You just don't know it, or in a minority of cases, you learn about it after the damage is done.

Less than 10 per cent of the people who contributed to our data trust their boss, learn from their boss, or respect their boss. That means that 90 per cent of the time people with SLs for bosses are not working at their optimal abilities. In fact, we have found that 72 per cent of white collar employee's day is busy work: answering emails, attending meetings, or answering to the SL for some minor or perceived transgression. This means that your employees only have 18 per cent of their day to move projects forward. And this is what the SL wants, no movement. If there is movement then the status quo might change and the position of the SL might change. Mediocrity loves inertia.

Very few companies have a bonus structure in place for talent development. Meeting or exceeding sales targets is rewarded, while talent development is neglected. But without it, your workforce will stagnate. Your best people will flee their petty tyrants, a sullen group will remain, and "the best" -- those who survived and thrived under the SLs' political games, will get promoted and continue the cycle.

The Alan-types of the world are leaving, or just deciding to settle. This means that when they are at work they stay out of the way, don't want to ask for promotions and accept their fate because they have mortgages and kids' tuition to pay for. Either they can't afford to leave or their competitive spirit has been so damaged that they no longer have the confidence to leave. Call it the "battered employee syndrome." (perhaps we could also insert the word voter for employee?)

When they finally get so fed up that they leave they are going into other industries. They are even going to your competitors. Imagine that: 13 years of experience walking out the door to the competitor. How much is that going to cost you?

How do you know if your senior leaders rule by fear? Read your 360 reviews, but read between the lines. Employees are very careful what they put on a 360 assessment, rightly fearing management payback. Look for short answers, or really long examples. When people are lying they tend to give too much detail.

Watch how your employees respond to the SL. Are they living in the culture of nice? Meaning do they always keep their mouths shut? Do you see people interacting, chatting or moving around? Is there a buzz in the office or do you see people walking out to talk or not looking at each other in the eye? As for the SL, watch how they listen: are they on their smartphones every minute instead of interacting with team members? Do they take more meetings than notes? Do they share they credit?

Top management should evaluate their managers with a fresh eye. Ask yourself, who has the SL promoted? How has this promotion moved the company forward? How do they develop talent? Have they showcased the talents of their team or have they taken credit for all the ideas?

It is not all the senor leader's fault. Years ago when these people joined the workforce, training programs were sacrificed to the altar of "shareholder return." That profit-before-people approach meant a generation of managers (those in place today), were never trained to lead. They haven't been invested in, so they are not investing in others. They don't have talent development goals, only affinity group quotas.

Jimmy Pratt, my old riding coach, used to say: "you plant corn, you get corn." Were you expecting sugar beets? Or decent managers? If less than 10 per cent of your workforce believe in their bosses, how productive do you think they are? Shareholders are important, but that approach has hollowed out companies physically and spiritually. My research with our products has shown that companies can attain a 60 per cent ROI on talent development. It's worth the investment.

When I presented these results at the Marketing Management Association Fall Educators Conference for peer discussion last week in New Orleans, each professor had their own SL experience and shared why they left or how they got "around" this person. When I presented in Chicago at the Diversity MBA Conference that same week -- the exact same discussion ensued. EVERYONE is dealing with this problem.

Before you berate or threaten or quietly scare another subordinate, remember the story of Alan. He is leaving his workplace of 13 years to go to a competitor. What did they lure him with? One extra week of vacation, a new title, and a similar salary. One person won't cost a company that much but think of what is coming in five years. For the first time in five years, we will be faced with more jobs than qualified employees when the baby boomers finally leave the workplace. When employees finally have the upper hand, will your organization be a destination or a disaster zone to be avoided? Will you be an employer of choice or will you be a place where people just go to pay their mortgage and survive until they can't take it anymore, like Alan?

Perhaps instead of allowing a shut down we should force politicians to participate in ethical leadership training or has that become an oxymoron?