Bad Bosses Make You Sick

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How poor management damages your employees' health and costs you big bucks.

How often have you heard someone say, "He makes me sick!" You may even have said it yourself. And it may not be an exaggeration. Strangely enough, the people we work with or for can actually make us ill. If you are on the receiving end, there's probably not a lot you can do about it. If you are a manager or supervisor, however, you should be fully aware of just how your actions can affect your subordinates.

Causing people problems is the mark of a poor manager, and it is likely to blow up into something serious when least expected. That managers actually have the power and influence to make people ill is a significant problem in itself. Proof of this is the fact that health-care costs in North American companies make up their second-largest expense, after the payroll. Simply put, managers cannot afford to make people sick, and companies cannot afford managers who do this.

Insomnia, depression, anxiety attacks, stomach disorders, headaches, high blood pressure, and ulcers are some of the symptoms of working with a bad boss, according to Americans Marjorie Blanchard and Mark Tager in their 1985" book, Working Well. The bad managers who cause these symptoms seem to exhibit several similar characteristics.

For one thing, they are unpredictable, so their employees never know when they are going to be called on the carpet or chastised. What makes the boss lose his or her cool one day may be ignored the next. These bosses focus on negative things and are stingy with praise — if they ever give any at all. As one troubled employee explained, "The only way you know that you are doing a good job here is when you aren't catching it from the boss." This negative, threaten-ing atmosphere wears people down, causes tensions, and stifles creativity and team spirit. Another characteristic of bad bosses is that they seem to take delight incriticizing employees in front of others. This is particularly damaging to the employee’s self-esteem and builds up.

Good managers try to catch employees doing something right, then reinforce that positive behavior resentment that gets passed on to someone else or finds an outlet in absenteeism, productivity problems, petty theft, or serious labor difficulties. If the worker doesn't vent his or her anger on the job, it may be released at home, in a familiar cycle known to psychologists as displacement, which works like this: Your boss tears a strip off you at work in the morning, and you bite your tongue and say nothing in return. But you pick a fight with your spouse when you get home. He or she in turn yells at your son, who hits his sister, who then torments the cat. The anger created by your boss gets displaced all down the line. These kinds of stresses and strains can ruin working and home relationships.

Ulcer-giving bosses tend to manage people according to a philosophy that pits the boss against the employee in a win-lose situation, and it's no surprise who is doing the winning. Bosses like this have few skills with people. They don’t know how to create and manage a team, and participatory management is a meaningless term for them. These bosses need to be in control, to be right, and to be seen as powerful. In fact, they are often unsure of themselves and have fragile self-images, which they simply disguise by attacking or blaming others.

Such bosses are often poor communicators, too. They tend to "shoot from the hip" and, having made a biting remark, they cannot bring themselves to back off or apologize. They tend to be poor listeners who want to make all decisions themselves. Workers who find their opinions are neither wanted nor valued simply stop offering them; instead of being creative, they become bored and indifferent. While all this sounds pretty dreadful and rather hopeless, it doesn't need to be this way. Good companies are looking for and training managers to develop and practise the skills that will enable them to get the very best from people while making it possible for employees to enjoy their jobs.

Managers are being taught that it is much more effective to give positive, as opposed to negative, reinforcement. Instead of pouncing on someone who is doing something wrong, the good managers try to catch employees doing something right; then they reinforce that behavior. This is called psychological shaping. It is a simple but powerful principle whereby you shape people's behavior by giving positive strokes each time they do something that moves them in the direction you want them to go. The technique is so powerful that university classes have been known to use it to make their professors unknowingly pace frantically while lecturing. The students know professors want to feel that they are liked and that their lectures are interesting. When they begin to walk in front of their classes, the students offer positive reinforcement by smiling at them, making eye contact, nodding their heads, and simply looking interested. If they stop pacing, the students break eye contact, stop smiling, look bored, and act restless. By the end of two classes the poor professors are usually running back and forth so hard while giving such apparently fascinating lectures that they must lie down to rest between periods.

What works in the lecture hall will work just as effectively in the office or plant. The authors of Working Well have some other hints to pass along to bosses who want to be more effective. They call them PERKS. The P is for Participation. Managers who allow employees to participate in decisions find them more willing and more committed to whatever is decided. E stands for Environment, a workplace that allows people to be friendly, helpful, and pleasant with each other. The R refers to Recognition.

We all want to feel important, and the boss who makes us feel this way is a treasure indeed. K is for Knowledge and there’re two kinds. First, employees want and deserve to know about company goals, plans, and progress. Second, bosses must know how to manage people effectively, and they must apply this knowledge daily. Finally, the S standsfor Style. The effective boss manages people in a style compatible with today’s employees, with modem management practices, and with a philosophy that clearly demonstrates that working for this boss won't make you sick.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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