25 February 2022

Sexual and racial abuse are finally getting the attention they deserve. Managerial abuse is not. It may be less acute, but it, too, causes enormous damage. Dysfunctional, mean-spirited treatment of employees—ranging from derision and humiliation to exploitation and bullying—is rampant in our organizations.

The problem is hardly restricted to business.  We hear stories about this in NGOs, schools, the media, you name it. Scott Rudin, Ellen DeGeneres, et al. And how about a Governor General of Canada, head of state, who had to resign because of the abuse in her office?

Many people reach out to tell me about their miseries at work. They mention the pressures, the angst, the burnout, but most of all, they lament the intolerable situation created by their boss. When John Bolton was proposed some years ago as the American Ambassador to the United Nations, he was described as a “kiss up and kick down” sort of person. Today we are inundated with “kiss up and kick down” managers, “superiors” who mistreat their “subordinates”—by taking these very words seriously. Instead of diversity, equity, and inclusion, abusive managers espouse obedience, discrimination, and exclusion.

Such abuse is, of course, not new. But why are we seeing so much of it now? Have bullies at the head of prominent governments given licence to objectionable behaviors of all kinds, from anti-vaxing to abusive managing? COVID, too, seems to have removed the social constraints on many people. “Nobody is going to tell me what to do”, least of all some mere subordinate.

A good deal of the blame can be put on the established procedures for selecting managers—by senior managers who select junior ones, including boards that select CEOs. They may be fully aware of the kissing up, but what do they know about the kicking down? After all, it’s not their backsides on the receiving end. Then there is the prevalent obsession with leadership, this infatuation with heroes that encourages the narcissism behind so much of the abuse. Power tends to corrupt, especially when it disempowers the led. Exacerbating this is the relentless drive for shareholder value, which keeps upping the pressure for results on the managers of publicly traded companies. A senior vice-president of HR recalled her experience:

"Without any prior consultation on what is feasible, you are 'hit' quarter after quarter with objectives you know from the get-go are unachievable…. You feel powerless, and your job's on the line. So, you rely on those you know will get the job done…which unfortunately includes bad managers. You may suspect their toxic behaviours, but you convince yourself that your fears are baseless because people aren't coming forward…. You are afraid, your bad managers are afraid, and your people are afraid.  You tell senior management only what it wants to hear, thus feeding unrealistic expectations for the next quarter…. A vicious cycle is at play."

There is another, costly side to the point about COVID. The pandemic has helped to remove the constraints on people fed up with their jobs, and especially with their bosses.  So they quit. “People don’t leave companies. People leave managers,” said the CEO of a recruiting firm recently.  Many have joined the Great Resignation. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been reporting the highest quit rates on record.) These people have to be replaced, and the new ones retrained. More costly still can be the ones who remain: dispirited, they disengage, working less enthusiastically, even taking time to share their misery with each other. Imagine if organizations monetized the cost of abusive managing. Imagine if society did likewise with the mental anguish and breakdown caused by such managing.

What should I tell the people who come to me about a bullying boss? That they should join the Great Resignation? Sure, if they can, but at the risk of ending up in another toxic situation. Or that they should stay and whistle blow? Despite the occasion story of success, this is a risky business. If the abuser is the CEO, should they go to the board? Good luck: the directors may have selected the incumbent in the first place, in their own image. In one striking case, an entire staff, deeply demoralized, wrote to the board, offering to help find a solution. They were rebuffed, in fact were accused of creating the problem. Most of the managers left, other staff unionized. After all this damage, the boss left.

Abuse is abuse, whether sexual, racial, spousal, or managerial. The managerial form has to be treated like the others, by being exposed, confronted, and challenged, legally when necessary. Imagine an “#AbusiveBossesToo” movement. Organizations that house such abuse will have to address it especially, since they are responsible for its consequences.

I am not one for simple solutions to endemic problems—five easy steps to disabusing managers of their wayward habits, or whatever. But here is one exception. I believe that a monumental improvement in management practice could be had, including a major reduction in the abusive forms of it, in one easy step: just open up voice in the process of selecting managers (pp 161-164).

Related: watch Minute with Mintzberg - "The Key to Leadership Selection."

Everyone has faults. These are what bring many managers down, and they, in turn, their organizations. Hence, every candidate for a managerial position should be assessed on the basis of their faults no less than on their strengths, to ensure that these will not become fatal under the circumstances. The two best ways to find out about someone’s faults are to marry them or to work for them. We can hardly expect unbiased opinions from a spouse, let alone an ex-spouse, but we may well get them from employees, and ex-employees. (It’s been said that you can fool the people you work for and with, but you can’t fool the people who work for you.) Here, then, is an additional form of due diligence: select no-one for a managerial position until a thorough effort has been made to canvass the opinions of people who have been managed by them. After all, managing is about working with employees, not just schmoozing with superiors.

We talk a great deal about “democracy” in society, but what does that mean for people who live with autocracy at work? More than putting an occasional X on a ballot, democracy has to mean coming home from work every day with your dignity upheld, your mental health intact.

© Henry Mintzberg 2022, with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, no rights reserved. Read Bedtime Stories for Managers about managing with soul, organizing like a cow, and growing strategies like weeds in the garden.