We’ve all had that one boss. The one that has you hitting the snooze button 3 times to delay the start of your workday. The one whose name causes a team roll-of-the-eyes. Instinctively, we all know a bad manager impacts employees’ performance and well-being. Research shows the inverse is also true—good bosses increase employee performance and boost employee mental health.
Per a McKinsey survey: “Relationships with management are the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction, which in turn is the second most important determinant of employees’ overall well-being.”
Source: McKinsey & Company
Good direct managers impact employees by providing “good work organization—that is, providing workers with the context, guidance, tools, and autonomy to minimize frustration and make their jobs meaningful—and psychological safety, which is the absence of interpersonal fear as a driver of employee behavior.” Harvard professor Amy C. Edmondson says that psychological safety can “destigmatize failure” and enable employees to focus on learning and growth.
A research paper published by Portland State University indicates similar. The authors summarize that managers impact the “organizational citizenship behavior (OCB)” of employees. Positive OCB means employees perform extra tasks that aren’t part of their job descriptions, like volunteering to take on more work or picking up a holiday on-call rotation. The authors also showed that a bad manager could cause employees to have more “counterproductive work behavior,” like missing deadlines or hiding mistakes.
Whichever terms are used, the impact of a poor manager/employee relationship can be significant. Gartner indicates that “an unpleasant employee experience can negatively impact psychological safety by up to 35%.” So being afraid to express an opinion or feeling disrespected can cause an employee to contribute less or even sabotage a company’s goals.
The stress a bad manager invokes can carry over into an employee’s home life. Insomnia, withdrawing from home duties, or lack of self-care at home can further incite bad work behaviors such as showing up late or taking long breaks. This can lead to another bad interaction with management, setting up a vicious cycle of work/home stress.
The additional stress and burnout caused by the coronavirus pandemic mean supporting an employee’s well-being and psychological safety is even more critical. According to Gartner, “Regardless of how long the virus outbreak lasts, COVID-19 and its ripple effects will have significant impact on employees’ personal and work lives, leading to emotions such as employee anxiety, frustration, and burnout. These feelings, when left unattended, can affect employees’ productivity and engagement, leading to work errors, poorer work quality, and eventually influencing an organization’s ability to survive in these difficult times.”
Research from Gallup suggests that good managers should be viewed as an employee benefit. It’s a valid point—if a company spends money on a benefits program to promote employees’ physical health, why let a bad manager impact employees’ mental health? That’s equivalent to drinking a diet soda while eating a candy bar, isn’t it?
What does good manager behavior look like? It depends on the business, but it could include coaching ability, being self-aware, and practicing self-care.
A manager who supports employee well-being coaches rather than criticizes. Coaching sets up a positive cycle of interaction—compassion and kindness foster loyalty, which increases work performance and behavior. A loyal employee is more apt to work that extra hour to meet a deadline.
Coaching requires being well-versed in the skill being taught. You can’t teach what you don’t know. But being really good at teaching a technical skill doesn’t mean you are automatically a good manager. An effective coach also uses soft skills to frame the lesson in the context of an employee’s goals and the company’s strategy.
A self-aware manager recognizes personal limitations and doesn’t mistake “boss status” to be the same as “knows everything.” This approach allows a boss to focus on building interpersonal relationships to get work done.
A good manager also practices and models self-care and encourages employees to do the same to reduce mental health issues. Self-care includes acts such as setting work/home life boundaries (e.g., not checking email after 6pm). A manager can also show their humanity and personal struggles by sharing their own home stressors, like finding their child a tutor.
Interestingly, one good boss can minimize the impact of a bad boss for employees who work on multiple teams. Harvard Business Review showed that employees who felt empowered by one boss were less likely to be impacted by micromanaging bosses on another project. While it’d be ideal if all bosses were good, it’s at least helpful to know how powerful one boss’s influence can be overall.
But you are running a business, not a support group. So why should you fret over an employee’s well-being? If not for ethical reasons, then consider the effect employees’ well-being can have on customer loyalty and company profits.
An unhappy employee can derail a customer relationship and decrease customer loyalty. A bored voice answering your service calls can drive customers away. An employee who feels the need to hide mistakes or stay quiet about problems can contribute to decreased quality, resulting in a loss of customers.
Unsatisfied employees can decrease company profits in several ways. Salaries are based on productivity, but a less productive employee means paying for more than you are getting. Bad managers increase employee turnover, and anyone who has ever hired someone understands the time and financial costs of hiring and onboarding a new employee. Additionally, customers want to support sustainable companies, which includes how employees are treated. If employees aren’t treated as a valuable company asset, it can hurt your company’s reputation and decrease profits.
If an employee’s direct manager plays a key role in an employee’s well-being, then what role does senior leadership play? Obviously, senior management is still a boss to somebody so, coaching and self-awareness are still key.
Several studies have recommended that senior management adopt a servant leadership style, which means leading in a manner that focuses on helping others succeed. Forbes says, “Demonstrate servant leadership by modeling the kind of attitude and behavior you want others to have in the face of crisis—one of calmness, sharing, gratitude, and compassion for others.”
Adopting this “comprehensive, communal leadership” style could reduce the impact on society from unhappy and underperforming employees. As a boss, a focus on influencing, inspiring, and mentoring may also make you happier in your role.
Senior management can change the performance evaluation criteria. Often these evaluations focus on rating an employee and rewarding authoritative leadership styles. Changing how an employee is reviewed to include coaching and feedback can improve employee well-being and support the servant leadership methodology. Methods for recognizing and rewarding those “extras” not in the job description (like volunteering for a new project) can also help.
Businesses need customers. But they also need employees who want to work for the business and help the business succeed. Good managers are a key part of that collaborative web. Don’t let a bad manager stop a good employee in their tracks.