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Recognising the traits of Bad Boss Syndrome

Staff join firms but leave bosses. We are seduced by the prestigious firm and exciting role – then we meet our boss. And that’s when the reality of bad boss syndrome hits and hurts.

Gallup surveyed over one million US employees, asking why staff left their jobs. The top five reasons are all within the control of a decent boss. So how well do you and your boss stack up against bad boss syndrome?

CAREER PROSPECTS is cited by 32% of respondents as the main reason for leaving. Separate research on how team members rated their boss found your reputation as good or not was determined by one golden question: “My boss cares for me and for my career – agree/disagree on a five-point scale”. Score well on this, and you will score well on every metric: team work, decisiveness, leadership and probably the quality of your jokes. Shockingly, the Gallup survey found that fewer than half of staff had a career conversation with their boss in the past six months. A way of reducing attrition is to show that you care for each team member and their careers. Do this, and there is a real risk that they will think you are a good boss.

PAY AND BENEFITS is cited by 22%. You may not be able to change firm wide policy on pay and benefits but you can affect the way staff perceive their pay and benefits. First, focus on fair process and fair outcomes. In one investment bank, a senior trader resigned after receiving a $900,000 bonus, waiting only long enough for the funds to clear into his bank account. That figure is enough for most of us. But if you have a planet-sized ego and find that someone else has been given the magic million dollars, you will be insulted: you have just been told you are not as good as your peers.

Second, Gallup found that satisfaction with pay and employee engagement are highly correlated. Of course, correlation is not causation and the survey does not tell which way the causality flows: does high engagement lead to satisfaction with pay or vice versa? But the evidence is that engagement does not come from pay. Many people are prepared to enter tough professions such as teaching, nursing, the church or the armed forces where the pay is low but the job satisfaction is high.

LACK OF FIT. The reality is that we only excel at what we enjoy. To excel at anything takes hard work and discretionary effort sustained over years. That means we need to find work we are good at and we enjoy. Of course, we all have to do our fair share of dull and demeaning work; and as professionals we can all put in extra effort when required. But if our entire future is about working long hours and doing things we dislike, we will soon look elsewhere. Bosses have to make sure the right people work on what is right for them as well as what is right for the firm. If that is a tough balance to achieve, then that is what you are paid for as a boss.

MANAGEMENT AND ENVIRONMENT is cited by 17%. My research shows that 67% of bosses think that they are good at motivation, so that is not a problem. Unfortunately, only 32% of their team members think the boss is good at motivation. So that is a problem.

The good news is that my research also shows that whether your team will rate you well for motivation, and for all other leadership qualities, is determined by that one golden question again: “My boss cares for me and my career – agree/disagree”. Simply showing that you care makes a huge difference. In a time-pressured world, taking time to show you care is greatly valued: it is not a cost, it is an investment that pays back many times over.

FLEXIBILITY AND JOB SCHEDULING. Staff know that they have to put in extra hours. A fair deal is to let them take time off when they really need it, for big family events and emergencies. Unhelpful bosses find team members decide to take time off permanently: they get a job elsewhere.

Voluntary turnover is costly. Talented and motivated staff are rare: they are the first to leave because they have the most options. Replacing them is expensive and risky, and they leave behind a demotivated rump. More than ever, good bosses make all the difference.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)

Originally published in Economia, May 2018.