3.4 million Aussie workers dislike their boss, according to new research. And over 50 per cent are concerned about having to interact with them again when they return to work.
Remember when people just put up with a bad boss? They’d tolerate the micromanager. They’d respond to the late-night communicator. They’d remain silent around the domineering tyrant.
Well, it seems that won’t fly anymore. According to recent research conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Australian College of Applied Professions (ACAP), more than half of the 1,000 employees surveyed said their tolerance for rudeness, bad behaviour, workplace politics and drama from their boss or colleagues had dwindled since pre-pandemic times.
This isn’t surprising. Not only has the pandemic brought into focus the things that are truly worth expending energy on at work – i.e. connecting with colleagues in a meaningful way or polishing remote work processes – it has also exposed cracks in many leaders’ approaches and capabilities.
“Our bandwidth for what we can cope with has shrunk because we’re all under so much pressure… And, as a result, our window of tolerance for coping with these situations is reduced,” says Dr Be Pannell, academic, leadership expert and ACAP Course Leader, MBA and Coaching.
ACAP’s data found that the equivalent of 3.4 million employees dislike their manager and that 53 per cent of those who’ve been working from home are concerned about having to interact with their boss again once they return to the workplace. The reasons for this are varied, but equally concerning.
Nearly 40 per cent felt their boss lacked emotional intelligence, 34 per cent said their boss was an ineffective communicator, 31 per cent said their boss wasn’t empathetic to their life outside of work, 32 per cent felt micromanaged and the same percentage reported a lack of flexibility or adaptability to change from their manager.
“The researcher in me wants to point out that this is an extrapolation of data, so those [numbers] might be skewed if we did a larger sample size,” says Pannell. “But [the data] is still reflective of a large proportion of people.
“Also the term ‘dislike’ is very ambiguous and vague, and means different things to different people, but [the data] shows miscommunication or a lack of building positive workplace relationships occurring.”
It’s a two-way street
The cost of ineffective management is fairly obvious. It impacts absenteeism rates; it contributes to turnover costs; and, at its most extreme, it can cost a company via stress-related illnesses.
Productivity levels are also slowed. One in four ACAP respondents said they would either avoid or take longer to complete a task that was assigned to them by a boss who was rude, demanding or didn’t show appreciation towards them.
In a time where agile working and producing at scale are held up as the Holy Grail of work practices, this is the last thing any business would want. Leaders should be enablers, not blockers.
“[Poor leadership] can create toxic workplaces which can lead to high levels of attrition, and there’s a massive cost with training and onboarding new staff who take ages to get up to speed.”
A barrier to progression in this area, according to Pannell, is the ‘us versus them’ mentality that can develop between leaders and their teams.
“I really want to emphasise that I don’t think this is a one-way thing. It’s not about pointing the finger at managers and saying, ‘You need to get better at emotional intelligence’. I also think there’s an onus on staff members… they might need to learn empathy and emotional intelligence towards their managers [and think about] what’s driving their behaviour.
“We need to realise that managers are under a lot of pressure too. Sometimes what drives their poor behaviour is their own stressors.”
Individuals have a responsibility to assess what’s driving their own behaviour, too.
Pannell once coached a leader who had terrible procrastination issues and would often avoid difficult conversations. Pannell soon discovered that he was a huge people pleaser.
“Once he started to address and weed out that particular habit, all of the procrastination and avoidance issues resolved themselves. That’s where coaching can be really helpful because it starts to look at what’s really driving the behaviour, not just trying to change things at a behavioural level.”
Interestingly, ACAP’s research found that millennials and Gen Z employees were more likely to think their leaders lacked essential people skills. They were also more likely to dislike their manager.
However, it’s important to note that respondents categorised in the Baby Boomer age group still took issue with subpar management, namely around poor listening and communication skills.
“I don’t think this is a one-way thing. It’s not all about pointing the finger at managers and saying, ‘You need to get better at emotional intelligence’. I also think there’s an onus on staff members.” – Dr Be Pannell, academic, leadership expert and ACAP Course Leader
Although there will be individual differences within the generational groups, Pannell said the younger workers could be faster to deem a leader’s behaviour unacceptable because there’s a greater demand for transparency due to the ways information is filtered through social media.
“The level of transparency that technology is providing is now being pushed on to greater transparency about how managers are operating. People are speaking up a lot more simply because we now have the technology to track performance and interactions in ways we didn’t before.”
The wish list of management skills
Understanding the underlying cause of certain behaviours and putting preventative systems in place is where HR professionals shine.
These skills are often demonstrated in conflict mediation situations or during the planning stages of wellbeing and mental health initiatives, but we also need to ensure they’re present at the recruitment and promotion stages.
If you’re looking to assess someone’s people skills, you shouldn’t just be focusing on what they’re doing but how they’re doing it, says Pannell.
“How do they communicate? How do they get the job done? How do they motivate others? If someone doesn’t have the ‘how’ down, it causes blockages… HR professionals would have seen the toxic environments that can be created around those individuals before.”
Often people get promoted because of their technical abilities, she says, which are incredibly important, but they need to balance that expertise with people skills.
When asked of the skills their ‘dream manager’ would possess, respondents listed good manners and respect (56 per cent), effective listening skills (53 per cent), empathy (53 per cent), flexibility (52 per cent) and teamwork skills (52 per cent).
You might think those skills are just part and parcel of leadership, but as most people reading this would know, that’s not always the case. More than 6 in 10 of respondents said their current manager struggled with these ‘soft skills’. There’s opportunity here, as part of an organisation’s broader upskilling agenda, to improve on this.
However, this data is reflective of the current environment, Pannell adds.
“I think a dream manager also needs to be strategic, have my back, be visionary, be able to help me move blockages to get the job done and support me in my long-term career goals. And that didn’t show up in the data.
“So I would suggest that the results are skewed at the moment, potentially because of the pressure we’ve all been under. When we get back to whatever is business as usual, we could start to change our [perception] of what we want in a manager and that will include some of those elements as well.”
Regardless of this, it’s evident that training opportunities are still necessary, particularly in having difficult conversations, says Pannell, and learning “how to stay in dialogue when we’re frustrated about something”.
“I do a lot of executive coaching work and a big chunk of what I’m doing is helping people fine-tune their emotional intelligence and regulation, and their communication skills. It can be quite labour intensive, and often it only gets rolled out in a remedial situation, so when something is really dysfunctional. So in terms of HR managers supporting a positive workplace environment, it’s about getting senior level managers to start to model [effective ways] of communicating.
“[This training] needs to have a ripple effect throughout the whole organisation. You can’t throw people into a half-day off site and say, ‘Everyone should be able to communicate now’, it needs to be embedded.”
Pannell says an example of embedded clear communication could be as simple as asking questions like these at the end of a meeting:
- How did we communicate in this meeting?
- We’ve got X,Y,Z values, did we live up to them today?
- Was everyone’s voice heard?
- Did we practice curiosity?
Often it’s these small, consistent changes that can have a profound positive impact on culture.
Asking these questions and gathering staff sentiment can not only help to improve the employee experience, it can also ripple out to your broader stakeholders, too.
“Emotional intelligence ends up providing a richer level of insight either as to what’s happening in the workplace, or even what’s happening in the competitive environment. This [data] can add more value and improve the overall output of the business.”
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