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Manager bullies may be killing your organisation

May 25, 2009 Business Daily, Management

“As we burrow deeper into the recession, companies around the world are cutting costs in all the usual ways—by reducing headcount, slashing capital budgets, and trimming overheads. All these measures are vital. But in their quest to root out inefficiencies, companies should also be focusing on the hidden but substantial costs of supercilious and overbearing bosses.
Last year, a global survey of 90,000 employees by Towers Perrin revealed that only 21% of employees are highly engaged in their work. The other 79% may be physically on the job, but they’ve left their enthusiasm and ingenuity at home. This is a scandalous waste of human capability. It’s also a virtually bottomless reservoir of creative potential that has yet to be tapped.

GARY HAMEL, Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2009)

Why are so many employees just going through the motions, feeling alienated and disenfranchised from their work? If only one in five employees around the world are highly engaged in their work, then the other four are just marking time. What a scandalous waste, says famed strategy guru Gary Hamel.

Hamel lays the blame at the feet of bosses, and it is hard to disagree. Why do some companies have highly charged, enthusiastic employees, while others have sullen and disgruntled ones? The difference is leadership.

In Hamel’s words: “The real damper on employee engagement is the soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority. In most companies, power cascades downwards from the CEO. Not only are employees disenfranchised from most policy decisions, they lack even the power to rebel against egocentric and tyrannical supervisors. When bedeviled by a boss who thwarts initiative, smothers creativity and extinguishes passion, most employees have but two options: suffer in silence or quit.”

Clearly, the four in five are suffering in silence, and will probably quit at the first opportunity. This is an awful way for us to run our businesses. Business excellence comes from releasing corporate spirit – that intangible, emotional buzz that employees generate when they feel part of something big, something worthwhile, something that allows them to grow. And the fact is, most business leaders are only able to generate that spirit in the people immediately around them. The lower down the organisation you go, the poorer the quality of leadership you encounter.

And that is indeed the harsh reality of business in Kenya. Even enlightened CEOs seem oblivious to the fact that in the lower reaches of the food chain, their people are subjected to crude bullies and egotistical bureaucrats. Many Kenyan managers and supervisors behave like gatekeepers and prefects: they browbeat and tyrannise their juniors. Those juniors in turn inflict the same behaviour on anyone who reports to them. Before you know it, 80% disenfranchisement is the norm.

This idea is supported by Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence in the workplace, which suggests that negative emotions at work are caused by managers and leaders – 9 out of 10 times!

So what should you, the thoughtful leader, do about this? First, rejoice: there is a huge pool of motivation and productivity just waiting for you to access it. But to do that, you must re-educate yourself and your appointed managers on what people management is all about. It is NOT about harassment and stifling control; it is about understanding people, igniting their potential and managing their development. Command-and-control, when left in the wrong hands, is precisely what causes the problem.

So if you are a CEO, start walking around more. Open direct channels to employees lower down the pecking order. Hold frank conversations with people, free of personal repercussions. What you find may shock you – but it will probably also save you. When you appoint managers, look for those with a genuine desire to develop others. Good leadership is only of value if it happens at all levels in the organisation, not just in the corner office.

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