Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Managers Behaving Badly!



Managers are supposed to get stuff done. They're supposed to coordinate resources, build capable teams, and deliver shareholder value. We all work for a manager in one form or another. And while work isn't the sole domain of life, having a sense of meaning and making an impact are reasons #4 and #5 for coming to work. We want to be fairly rewarded for doing good work. And for that, we need good managers.

So how many good managers have you worked for in your career? Probably not that many. In fact, you'll be lucky if you can nominate more than two. And like most of us, you've probably left more than one position due to a toxic boss. What is the cost of managers behaving badly? And what, if anything, can be done about it?


Cost of Bad Managers

What's the cost of bad managers?
Of course, it's naïve to claim these costs are solely due to bad managers. Bad organizational culture, structure and systems contribute their fair share. And industry and market conditions add to these costs. But if there's any responsibility or liability, it invariably gets sheeted home to the managers involved. The 2018 Australian Banking Royal Commission is a case in point. The Commonwealth Bank has been forced to defend itself in court over allegations it systematically breached anti-money-laundering and terrorism-financing laws on nearly 54,000 occasions and could potentially face about $1 trillion worth of fines. These are the actions of managers behaving badly.

Mindless Managers

Managers behave badly when they don't stop to think about their actions or how their behavior might be  negatively impacting their team. They "drive for performance" (a curious term that suggests employees are more akin to vehicles). When managers lose focus on what really matters, and when their situational awareness becomes too narrow they behave mindlessly. They "go with the flow" even if that flow is unethical. They choose the path of least resistance even if that means riding roughshod over team members. Mindless managers behave badly because they are self-centered; they are preoccupied with their own agendas, and unable or unwilling to consider how their actions might affect others. Self-centredness arises because of (1) insecurity: they lack confidence and react emotionally to real or perceived threats; and (2) arrogance: They are overconfident and see people as objects to be used for their own purposes.

Mindful Managers

Managers behave better when they develop focused attention on what really matters, and when they become aware of how others are behaving and feeling. The key is how well managers manage distraction. A recent survey of more than 30,000 managers from thousands of companies in more than a hundred countries found that 71% of managers feel distracted from their current task either "some" or "most" of the time. Sources of distraction included:
  • Demands of other people (26%),

  • Competing priorities (23%),

  • General distractions (13%), and 

  • Workloads that are overwhelming (12%).
Overcoming distraction isn't the only thing that good managers do of course. But the ability to understand and manage attention keeps managers from behaving badly. How?

Mindful awareness helps managers to get in the driver's seat of their own mind and see more clearly what is the "right" thing to do for the benefit of all stakeholders. Mindful focus helps managers to be more efficient and consequently achieve better wellbeing.

But it takes training. We are hard-wired for distraction. Focus occurs in the prefrontal cortex, which is the centre of deliberation, reasoning, and choice. Through training and practice it is possible to develop the skill of sustained, focused attention on a chosen task or object. Through training and practice it is also possible to gain self-awareness and develop a more considerate and compassionate approach to others, realizing what is most likely the best choice for all concerned.


To stop managers behaving badly we need to include the skills of mindfulness in any management or leadership training curriculum. The linear MBA-trained logic is necessary but no longer sufficient if it comes at the cost of other skills like self-awareness. The cost of managers behaving badly is just too great to put up with anymore.