The 3 Deadly Sins Of Bad Bosses

Are you guilty of eroding employees' morale? Discover the 3 behavioral changes you can make to be a better boss and run a better business.
September 27, 2013

"As we look ahead into the next century," Bill Gates says, "leaders will be those who empower others." And research seems to prove him right.

When researchers at the University of Iowa examined 140 studies in empowerment, their conclusions confirmed that workers who feel empowered in their jobs have better attitudes, experience less stress and are more productive, more innovative and ultimately more loyal to their employers.

On the other hand, bad bosses disempower people and end up harming their own businesses. Review these top three deadly sins of a bad boss to see if you're making your employees feel disempowered.

Eroding Self-Confidence

One of the worst things bad bosses do is erode an employee's self-confidence. They overlook a person's successes and focus exclusively on weaknesses. Most employees want to impress their boss and are quite adept at reading the nonverbal signs of rejection. For example, they'll feel rejected if they receive less favorable attention in meetings, their ideas are dismissed with the silent treatment or they have to struggle to get face time with their boss. No matter how much this employee tries, she can never measure up to the favored group.

It's as if the boss's low expectations of that person are a certainty. Before long, the employee's performance spirals downward and she starts to doubt the value of what she produces.

Jean-Francois Manzoni, a professor of management practice at INSEAD, an international graduate business school, analyzed the detrimental effects of a boss's low expectations in his study, "Inside The Golem Effect: How Bosses Can Kill Their Subordinates' Motivation." The golem effect is a psychological phenomenon in which a boss unwittingly communicates his lack of confidence in subordinates and the behavior becomes self-fulfilling by encouraging low performance.

Former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch puts it like this: "Self-confidence is the lifeblood of success ... You cannot unleash the creative power of individuals who doubt themselves ... good leaders work relentlessly to find ways to instill self-confidence in those around them. They know it’s the gift that never stops giving." Eroding your subordinates' self-confidence is shortsighted behavior.

Withholding Praise

Withholding praise is not only the worst kind of emotional miserliness, but it's also bad for business. A study quoted earlier this year in Harvard Business Review shows the factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams is the ratio of criticism to praise. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was nearly six positive comments for every negative one, while the average for the low-performing teams was almost three negative comments for every positive one. As the researchers state, "Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination and creativity."

Research conducted by the Gallup Organization shows that fewer than one in three American workers can strongly agree that they've received any praise from a supervisor in the past seven days. The research also shows that receiving recognition or praise for doing good work is responsible for a 10 to 20 percent difference in revenue and productivity. So if praise or positive feedback is so important to improving the effectiveness of a business, why do some leaders withhold praise?

In Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top, leadership expert Quint Studer lists six myths and excuses many leaders use to resist giving people compliments. They're all the mark of a bad boss:

1. Big Head: “If I compliment them too much, they’ll get a big head!”

2. Complacency: “If I tell them they did a good job, they’ll get complacent!”

3. Martyrdom: “I don’t need a compliment; why should they?”

4. Another Day, Another Dollar: “They should just be happy with a day’s work for a day’s pay—in fact, they should be grateful to have a job at all!”

5. Scrooge Mentality: “I can give out only so many compliments a week!”

6. Pride: “This is hokey!”

Withholding well-deserved praise is damaging to people's morale and their sense of worth. Everyone needs a pat in the back once in a while.

Not Sharing Information

Insecure bosses often decide not to share information as a way of feeding their hunger for power. In the process, they render employees powerless, forcing them to scramble to get the information they need to accomplish their goals. Not sharing crucial information on a timely basis causes a great deal of anxiety for employees, causing them to adjust deadlines at the last minute, work longer hours to avert disasters on a project or cope with unannounced budget changes.

Sharing information is the lifeblood of companies' activities. Control freaks who practice the old-fashioned, secretive, need-to-know management style do their employees a disservice and end up hurting their companies' bottom line. In The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company, Jack Stack, founder and CEO of remanufacturing company SRC Holdings Corporation, recommends an "open book management" style, which he defines as the practice of openly communicating with people via the numbers.

"We are building a company," Stack notes, "in which everyone tells the truth every day—not because everyone is honest, but because everyone has access to the same information: operating metrics, financial data, valuation estimates. The more people understand what's really going on in their company, the more eager they are to help solve its problems."

Open book management starts by teaching people what the critical numbers mean, which helps them know where they need to focus their attention. It's about connecting the dots for people so everyone can clearly understand how their day-to-day actions affect everyone around them and why their work matters.

Bosses who do this help their people see what happens if they don't measure up. This gives them an opportunity to improve their game, so they can put more money in their pocket. That's true empowerment.   

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. 

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