• Leadership

Good Bosses and Bad Bosses

Cass Business School’s Dr Amanda Goodall says experts can make good bosses, and bad bosses are less common than we might imagine

Tuesday 14 January 2020


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Senior leadership failure is rarely out of the news—think recently of Boeing, Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, and Thomas Cook. Less headline grabbing, but we tend to assume prevalent, must be the everyday failures of numerous bad bosses within large organizations. After all, the toxic senior leaders are drawn from this same talent pool.

The relatively good news, revealed by recent research, is that most employees rate their immediate bosses quite highly. Only 13% are seen to be ‘bad managers’ by their team members and reports. This would suggest that the traditional received wisdom—that people are promoted to the level of their own incompetence i.e. The Peter Principle—is largely unfounded.

The new research by Dr Amanda Goodall, Associate Professor of Management and co-founder of the Executive Master’s in Medial Leadership, shows that while bad managers can be truly toxic, most of a randomly selected sample from the European Working Conditions Survey rated their bosses highly.

Writing about her research in the Financial Times Dr Goodall notes that, “Remarkably the sample of 28,000, assesses their line managers on average to be 4 out of 5—where 5 is best. This suggests most employees are satisfied with their managers. Indeed 1-in-10 bosses get a ‘perfect’ score.”

Ultimately good leadership is about organizational success and sustainability. To achieve this the extent to which bosses can enable each of their employees to fulfil his or her potential in terms of engagement, commitment, creativity and performance is critical and is closely linked to their ability to provide employees with a sense of job satisfaction.

According to the research three factors influence employees’ job satisfaction. These are; pay, length of working hours, and whether or not they work in a small, more personal environment.

However, a fourth factor—‘boss quality’—outweighs the sum of the other three. Good ‘boss quality’, which fosters employee job satisfaction and in turn better performance, has two key characteristics from the employees’ perspective. First the boss is able to help their employees to complete their work successfully, and in developing their careers, and secondly the boss is seen to be competent.

While bosses can be categorised as ‘bad’ for many reasons, the area Dr Goodall’s research highlights is lack of competence. “Employees have higher job satisfaction and lower intentions to leave when they think their boss is an expert in the business area—and could do their job if necessary.”

A good manager needs emotional intelligence, communication skills and more, but Dr Goodall points to the overriding importance of knowledge, expertise and competence as being the pivotal qualities when it comes to managing and leading others.

Leaders whose competence is based on a deep technical understanding of the business they are in, as opposed to just having good general managerial ability, are associated with successful corporate performance. In the same way that doctors can make good hospital managers and ex-racing drivers good F1 team leaders, business sector experts are most likely to make good bosses.

While boss quality enhances job satisfaction, staff retention and team performance, the opposite applies to bad bosses. A single bad boss can have a deleterious effect on numerous employees causing a ‘multiplier effect’ that can be harmful to the organization, sometimes over many years. The research shows a fine line between good and bad managers. The difference between a really good boss and a bad boss is just one point on a scale that runs from 1- 4.

However, there is one further bit of good news suggested by the research. The prevalence to narcissistic managers is low. Narcissists who focus excessively on themselves without sufficient regard for others are invariably bad managers. Even managers that scored low enough to be considered ‘bad bosses’ often score highly in their ‘respect for workers.’

Where these bad bosses rated poorly tended to be in their ability to ‘get the job done’ or to focus on ‘employee development.’ Both factors, of course, that again directly related to expertise and competence.

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