We’re all familiar with the truism that people resign from a bad boss rather than a bad job. In survey after survey the same statistics are oft repeated - if there’s one thing that gets workers’ backs up about work it’s their managers. One recent US research piece asked workers the worst part of their jobs and three quarters of respondents named their boss.
A UK study went further, with respondents saying that they’d need to have 150 per cent pay increase to deal with a toxic supervisor. Our managers haunt our lives. It’s our managers’ words we think about if we’re a Sunday night worrier. We dwell on casual asides our bosses spit out in annoyance that they later claim to have no recollection of. This is the reality of life with our managers, and hence so it is with the people we, in turn manage.
Harvard business psychologist Teresa Amabile oversaw a vast study tracking workers’ daily routines via a diary methodology. She observed that mentions of supervisors were almost exclusively when bosses had acted to demotivate a worker. Bleakest of all, one Swedish study found that intimidating managers could be directly attributed with the 60 per cent increase in heart attacks amongst the people they oversaw. Whether we recognise it or not, our team’s belief of whether they like their job is largely down to our actions.
So what makes us hate our bosses? And what can any of us do to change it? It seems that despite our desire to sand the rough edges off the people reporting to us the biggest impact that bosses can have is by being positively supportive. Researchers who studied positive and critical supervisors discovered that critical direction tended to leave team members confused and uncertain.
Generous bosses’ praise acted to improve employees’ self-belief - and by consequence their performance - over time. Interestingly this extends way beyond the workplace - relationships filled with what is called ‘positive illusion’ (where our partner seems to be enamoured with us) are far more likely to sustain that those without. Above all, whether at work or at home, all of us just want to be appreciated.
What can any of us do to change this? Generally, workers report that the greater the empathy bosses have with their team members’ work, the more they respect them. Organisations like McDonald’s have long had ‘back to the floor’ days to refresh the understanding of the day-to-day job amongst those in head office.
Tom Leitch, the engineering director of Deliveroo, told me that his solution to this was to send his software development team out to perform at least one delivery job a week so they could understand drivers’ frustrations with the app. The more managers get the job, the less their team have to work around their misguided directions.
Some of these findings go against our instincts - most of us feel that we want to constantly correct the errors of our team (surely that’s why we’re there)? However, when we look at the effort that teams put in, incremental effort seems (according to work by a team at the University of Sheffield) to be correlated with how supported they feel rather than the critical input they have received.
The greatest thing that a manager can do is understand the impact they have on the people working for them. Empathise with the realities of the job and support those doing it - and maybe you’ll spare someone a sleepless Sunday.
Bruce Daisley recently resigned as the EMEA VP for Twitter. He is the author of The Joy of Work, the bestselling guide to fixing work, out now in paperback. If you have a bad boss contact the Bad Boss Helpline - badbosshelpline.com
Image credit: Bruce Daisley