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Why Good Bosses Go Bad (and Other Issues that Keep Leaders Up at Night)

Nicole Lipkin is the author of a book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues (AMACOM, 2013).  She is a speaker, consultant, and executive coach who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and an MBA. and she has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business, and other high-profile media outlets. She discussed her book with AMA for an Edgewise podcast. The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: There’s a chapter in your book titled “I’m a Good Boss. So Why Do I Sometimes Act Like a Bad One?” How do you explain this kind of behavior?
Nicole Lipkin: It happens to the best of us. I call it “the good boss gone temporarily bad syndrome.” There are three reasons why you or I —and everyone—would suddenly go from being a really good boss to being a jerk. The first is being too busy to win. The second is being too proud to see, and the third is being too afraid to lose.

Being too busy to win speaks to the constant battle most of us are fighting in this crazy workaholic, constantly wired, and connected global community that we live in. When we’re overwhelmed, we lose our temper more readily. We get anxious. We procrastinate more, forget things, lose concentration. You get into that kind of mode where you’re writing a million to do lists, but you’re not really accomplishing anything. You can’t be a great boss when you’re way too overwhelmed or busy; a ball or two is going to drop.

Being too proud to see involves three things: letting yourself get so tied to an idea that you won’t let it go, refusing to heed the advice of others, and relying on your past successes at the expense of weighing different options or solutions. All three of these behaviors not only damage performance and productivity; they can also very much undermine your credibility as a leader. Being too proud to see can really lead to more than just a good boss temporarily gone bad; it can lead to the good boss gone permanently bad.

Last but not least, we have being too afraid to lose. This happens when we worry excessively about failing to get the right results, when we question and second guess every step along the way, avoid decisions and commitments that might cause mistakes, or get involved in every detail, particularly as deadlines loom. More than the other variations, this thwarts creative problem solving and impedes team progress. Good bosses who fall into this trap often worry about appearing weak. They mistakenly associate failure and mistakes with weakness and incompetence. However, this false relationship causes them to behave kind of stupidly and out of character, micromanaging details or becoming immobile.

AMA: Employee engagement is a big issue today. Why and how do employees go from being engaged to disengaged so quickly?
NL: People go from totally engaged to seriously deflated and disengaged because of a breach of something called the psychological contract. That’s a person’s belief about the mutual obligations that should exist between an employer and an employee. Some are stated and tangible obligations, like “If you give me pay and benefits, I’ll give you work output and time.” Others are unstated and intangible obligations, like “You provide me with a positive work culture, and an opportunity and I’ll give you commitment, loyalty, and effort.”

Disengagement often happens when there is a breach of this contract. These breaches come about for a variety of reasons: violations of trust, actions that lack honesty and integrity, behaviors that violate ethics or the law, broken promises, assignments that intrude on personal time and work/life integration. Or, because of job descriptions and expectations that are ill-defined, environments or cultures that are difficult and depressing; and really important, when leaders drastically alter the deal and don't behave or act the way they promised they would.

The breaches that lead to disengagement are critical for two really important reasons. The first and most obvious reason is research has consistently shown that disengagement can lead to a decline in productivity, performance, workplace safety, loyalty and retention, organizational citizenship behaviors, and the overall bottom line.

But the other major problem with disengagement—as if that stuff isn’t enough—is that the negativity often associated with someone who is disengaged can lead to something called emotional contagion, where negative emotions spread virally. It can affect a culture and then trickle down to customers. The reason why this happens is really fascinating. Our limbic systems, which are the emotional centers in our brain, do a kind of tango with one another. If you’re around someone who is chronically negative and down, you start feeling really bummed and down around that person. The opposite is also true: if you’re around someone who’s really upbeat and positive, you can’t help but feeling kind of positive and happy. We mimic one another.

So having someone who is disengaged and doing nothing about it could potentially lead to way more damage than just one person’s mojo simply being destroyed.

AMA: How can we turn a disengaged situation around?
NL: It really can be reversed with great leadership. When you see someone disengage, you must take the time to talk to that person immediately. Although that seems like common sense, a lot of us don't take the time because we’re all busy. Also, often we don't want to hear what’s going on. But acknowledging the breach and remedying the situation, if possible, is critical.

AMA: What are some ways that managers can help their people cope more effectively with change?
NL: Change triggers our fight/flight response, which is way more powerful than “You’ll do it because I said so.” And although people will follow the “Do as I say” out of fear and compliance, it is a sure way to disengage and create an “us versus them” culture and also to ultimately create underperformance. Bottom line, change requires buy in, and buy in requires a solid “why,” and a transfer or a sharing of ownership.

In challenging this fight/flight response to change and the biases that keep us stuck in the mud, it’s really helpful if you include people in the process from the beginning, gain buy-ins through influence, and help people understand how it will help them or hurt them. And the other really important thing—and I know this is kind of annoying to think about in the workplace—is that when you’re changing or you’re adding something to people’s jobs, allowing people to vent and naysay for a controlled period of time really helps. It helps people free up their minds to actually look at the factors they can control and the ones that they can’t, to start reshaping their approach.

Learn more about What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues (AMACOM, 2013).

Are you employees not as engaged as you would like them to be? You can build trust through communication with the help of this AMA webinar.