Who’s Bossing the Boss?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

How important is the boss in today’s workplace?  According to a Corporate Leadership Council study, the single most important factor affecting staff engagement is the quality of an employee’s manager.  Another study found that 80% of people who resign from their jobs do so because they can’t stand their boss. And a recent Gallup poll revealed that nearly 25% of all employees in the U.S. would fire their boss if given the chance.

Yet, according to former IBM human resources executive Andrew O’Keeffe, many organizations avoid fixing the biggest internal restraint on their business—elevating the capability of their managers and holding them accountable for their people management responsibilities. O’Keeffe, author of a new novel, The Boss (Greenleaf Book Group Press, http://www.hardwiredhumans.com/), believes that company leaders and human resources professionals fail in their employee/employer relationship because they’re too busy “sweating the small stuff” to recognize the obvious—the need to address the tough stuff of bossing the bosses.

“There is a light bulb that needs to be turned on to overcome a fundamental blind spot,” said O’Keeffe. “We look at management as though it is rational, but it’s not; it’s emotional. When you ask people about their boss, as I have done, you get an instant emotional reaction—good or bad. I rarely received a neutral response.”

“The reason I wrote The Boss,” he continued, “which is based on true stories, is to reveal that the relationship between people and their boss is emotion, and that the relationship has a major impact on people’s spirit and output.”
O’Keeffe believes that companies can simultaneously improve the quality of managers in their organizations and enhance employee engagement by implementing the following strategies:

• Design a “doable” job.  To enable managers to do their jobs, their role first needs to be structured so that they have a sensible number of people reporting to them. Managers get into trouble if they have more than nine direct reports. Moreover, organizations have to articulate clear expectations and define what constitutes success for the manager in the eyes of top management.

• Hire well.  Hiring is 90% of success, so don’t let middle managers appoint lower level managers without review. Use the hiring process to raise the caliber of your managers and ensure they have the necessary people skills.

• Provide the right tools.  Give managers the practical, no-nonsense, and not overly complex leadership tools and training they need to lead successfully: for recruiting staff, orienting staff, planning and reviewing work, conducting developing discussions and managing pay and rewards.

• Invest in skill development.  Most managers are hired because of their technical skills. Ironically, the people dimension of their job, which may be the most complex and unpredictable part of the responsibilities, is the area for which they are least prepared. It is a denial of reality to think that managers who are technically competent are automatically qualified to manage people. There is a desperate need for leadership training that covers frameworks, ideas, concepts, and practice.

• Hold managers accountable.  Senior leaders need to know which managers are handling their people responsibilities well and which are not. Organizations must implement a feedback loop—such as staff engagement surveys, “skip” interviews by senior leaders, and “morale reviews” by HR. The accountability test for a senior leader is: “What would cause a manager in your organization to be removed from their manager role?” The answer to this question describes the culture that you have established and the quality of management in your organization.

Every day, managers face events at work that define their relationship with their staff—project updates, team meetings, performance appraisals, pay reviews, and so forth. A manager’s leadership effectiveness depends on the way he or she deals with these situations.  If managers handle these issue well, their leadership authority, along with the success of the organization as a whole, is enhanced;  but if they handle them poorly, their leadership authority is eroded, and the organization becomes at risk.