Even the most admired organizations have problems at the top. The U.S. Army in January released details from its investigation into a rash of suicides and suicide attempts among soldiers stationed in Iraq in 2010. According to the report, there was a common feature in the nearly 30 individuals who either attempted or actually committed suicide: Along with personal problems, they all had toxic managers.
“Oftentimes platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst. Seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy’s life the most miserable,” said anthropologist Dave Matsuda, an independent contractor commissioned to study the high suicide rate among U.S. soldiers.
Although not all bosses are so toxic, the majority of Americans seem to work for an incompetent or abusive manager. A chapter by Joyce and Robert Hogan, founders of Hogan Assessment Systems, where the author works, and Rob Kaiser of Kaplan DeVries, published in the APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology illustrated that at least 50 percent and as many as 75 percent of managers will fail. Those are grim odds, and they’re having a big impact.
According to Gallup Inc.’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace survey, nationwide, only 30 percent of U.S. employees are engaged, with nearly 1 in 5 employees being actively disengaged. Low engagement is the single most detrimental problem in business. Gallup’s researchers studied nearly 50,000 organizations, including 1.4 million employees, to measure the relationship between employee engagement and performance. According to the report, employee engagement affected customer ratings, profitability, productivity, turnover, safety incidents, absenteeism and theft, all of which adds up to an estimated $300 billion in lost revenue every year.
And bad managers aren’t just bad for business; they are also detrimental to health. Harris Interactive Inc.’s 2013 Work Stress Survey showed that 83 percent of Americans polled were stressed at work, a marked increase from 73 percent in 2012. That’s dangerous news, considering a 2012 pan-European study by University College London professor Mika Kivimaki showed that people who have highly demanding jobs and little freedom to make decisions are 23 percent more likely to experience a heart attack.
What can you do to prevent bad managers from infiltrating an organization, and what do you do with those who are already there?
How Do Bad Leaders Get to the Top?
Given that history is full of examples of failed leaders who match the stereotypical description of a bad manager — incompetent, manipulative and arrogant — organizations have habituated to the idea that managers have no real talent for leadership, and rightly so. Indeed, the same bold, attention-grabbing behavior that managers find attractive tends to alienate peers and subordinates.
In 2013, Korn Ferry sent out a survey to more than 1,000 people asking about their worst boss. Fifty-two percent described their worst boss as arrogant. Similarly, an analysis of 1,200 sets of 360-degree feedback data by researchers at a New Zealand personality assessment and consulting firm, the results of which are detailed in the February 2012 issue of Employment Today, found that, compared to their higher-rated peers, bad managers were overwhelmingly described as bad at controlling their emotions, accepting feedback and adjusting their behavior.
However, if leaders think of leadership as a resource for the group, and as a psychological process that enables teams to create a synergy that enhances team performance, the story changes. If bad managers are arrogant, manipulative, passive-aggressive, and unable to control and adjust their emotions, it follows that good leaders would exhibit the opposite characteristics — humility, empathy, direct communication and emotional control, collectively referred to as emotional intelligence, or EQ.
In a 2013 study, “From Engaging Leaders to Enthusiastic Employees: The Role of EQ,” University College London psychologist Adrian Furnham and the author analyzed 360-degree feedback, EQ and performance data for more than 1,000 managers and employees at a large European retail chain. Data indicated that manager EQ not only significantly predicted employee engagement, but also performance. Furthermore, managers with lower EQ had more staff absenteeism and turnover, and lower customer satisfaction ratings and sales revenues. In short, hiring managers with higher EQ does wonders for engagement, which boosts revenues and profits.
Can EQ Be Coached?
There is a great scene in the movie “The Godfather: Part II” where Kay (Diane Keaton) complains to husband Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) about his unfulfilled promise to make his business legitimate. Michael responds that he is still working on it, reassuring Kay emphatically: “I’ll change, I’ll change — I’ve learned that I have the strength to change.”
Most leaders are a bit like Corleone in that they overestimate their capacity for change. Their ability to identify and manage emotions is fairly stable over time, influenced by early childhood experiences and even genetics. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean they can’t improve their EQ, but no program can get someone from zero to 100 percent. A well-designed coaching intervention can achieve improvements of 25 percent up to 50 percent.
However, that change can be hard work. Think about the worst boss you ever had — how long would it take him or her to start coming across as more considerate, sociable, calm or positive? And that’s the easy part; it is even harder to change one’s internal EQ. In other words, you might still feel stressed out or angry on the inside, even if you manage not to show those emotions on the outside. Everyone can change, but few people are seriously willing to try.
Is Coaching Worth It?
If change is difficult, why not just fire managers with low EQ and replace them with more affable individuals? This should be a last resort. More than half of outside hires fail, many in their first 18 months on the job.
“Outside hires face enormous obstacles,” said Ryan Ross, Hogan vice president of global alliances. “They are unfamiliar with the business, its employees, its culture, and the unique internal and external challenges it and its employees face.”
The higher up the organization those outside hires are, the more challenges they face. A study published by the Financial Management Association International titled “Outside and Inside Hired CEOs: A Performance Surprise,” found that internally promoted CEOs bring more than 25 percent greater total financial performance than external hires, and their departures are typically more costly. The average cost of a failed executive hire ranges from $1 million to $2.7 million.
The most important aspect of effective EQ coaching is giving people accurate feedback. An August 2013 study by the Korn Ferry Institute showed that the stocks of publicly traded companies whose employees, especially their leaders, demonstrated a high level of self-awareness consistently outperformed those whose employees had low self-awareness.
In a meta analysis of more than 55 separate studies, researchers Paul Mabe and Stephen West showed that the relationship between self- and other ratings of EQ is weak (weaker even than for IQ). In other words, we may not have a very accurate idea of how smart we are, but our notion of how nice we are is even less accurate.
The aforementioned Korn Ferry studied showed that, of the nearly 7,000 people who were surveyed online, 79 percent demonstrated a serious blind spot. The main reason is wishful thinking or overconfidence: It is a well-documented fact that, in any domain of competence, most people think they are better than they actually are.
Any intervention focused on increasing EQ must begin by helping people understand what their real strengths and weaknesses are. Reliable, valid assessment methods such as personality tests or 360-degree feedback gives managers and their coaches an objective view of how others are likely to see them. From there, coaches can use a number of techniques to improve behavior:
- Enhance individuals’ psychological flexibility. People can be taught to accept and deal with unpleasant situations rather than avoiding them.
- Compensate with alternative behaviors. Use positive behaviors to rebuild a reputation marked by counterproductive behaviors. As positive behaviors are demonstrated multiple times, the manager’s reputation will begin to change.
- Support weakness with resources. When someone has a clear weakness, such as micromanaging, sometimes the most effective development strategy is to compensate by supporting the employee with additional resources, such as a direct report who excels at dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.
- Redesign the job or assignment. Rather than paying out a severance package and losing institutional knowledge, it is sometimes possible to alter people’s job requirements to remove roles in which they struggle.
Many employee engagement surveys have shown that managers are the major cause of employee disengagement and stress, and disengagement and stress have been shown to be major inhibitors of productivity and retention. The American Institute of Stress reports that stress is the main cause underlying 40 percent of workplace turnovers and 80 percent of work-related injuries.
There is no single solution to the problem of bad bosses. However, by shifting an organization’s hiring and promotion practices to focus on identifying candidates and incumbents with higher emotional intelligence, providing coaching for low-EQ managers who are willing to change and firing those who aren’t, leaders can enable organizations to reduce the number of bad managers, increase staff morale, and become more effective, innovative and profitable.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at University College London and vice president of research and innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems, a research-based personality assessment and consulting company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.