I'm confident it would be a rare situation to encounter a senior executive who hasn't had to deal with poor leadership within their ranks. Part of the problem is that the most challenging leaders often exhibit a Jekyll and Hyde personality-- they seem to have two conflicting personalities that show themselves at different times.
For instance, when at the executive table, this type of leader will typically demonstrate and develop strong and positive interpersonal relationships with peers. They will show creativity in problem solving and contribute some powerful and strategic ideas to the discussion at hand. These departmental leaders also always seem to meet and/or exceed their financial goals.
But the evil Hyde side of this leader's personality seems to surreptitiously appear upon return to their direct work domain. In fact, their perceived leadership style seems to take a 180-degree turn as the individual reverts to being a bullying, abusive boss. They don't trust their employees, they don't respect their employees and they intimidate them at every turn. These leaders are authoritative perfectionists who have no clue how to coach and mentor employees for positive motivation. In fact, their idea of employee engagement is to create rigid systems and drive their people hard.
There are at least two challenges with this leadership style. First, employee turnover will be high. While production might appear high, more than likely one or two employees are over-exceeding their capacity while others suffer from low self-esteem and low morale and are unproductive. Either way, burnout will soon be a problem and production is bound to fall along with it.
Secondly, in many cases, the executive leader is often the last person to hear about the personnel problems experienced in a downstream department. That's because Jekyll and Hyde leaders are good at covering up and camouflaging issues. Employees, on the other hand, are frightened of repercussions and therefore reluctant to complain about their leader. Unless there is a reputable HR manager with whom the employees have confidence and will share concerns, employees will simply not openly complain. Let's face it, no matter what your HR policy manual says, employees are fearful of personal retaliation up to and including job loss.
Let's try to understand things from the employee's point of view. First, your employees more than likely perceive their departmental leader to be protected by his or her well established and positive senior management relationships. This will lead them to expect their complaint would either not be investigated or given serious consideration. Secondly, employees will probably have seen firsthand what happens to an employee who complains and those who fear job security will once again refrain from complaining to a higher level. Lastly, while most other managers are aware of the bully boss behaviours, they do not have any power to intervene or perhaps, they too are afraid of some of the power relationships within the organization.
It doesn't matter what type of industry sector you work in, there will be times when you have to deal with a management team member who is a bully boss, even if you simply hear about it through office gossip. The best strategy for ensuring a well-run organization is to engage in periodic, proactive human resource strategies rather than waiting until a major complaint arrives on your desk. This will help to facilitate the discovery of problematic pockets within your organization structure and allow you to deal with them more effectively. Some of these strategies include the following:
Employee satisfaction/engagement surveys -- These online surveys can be customized to include additional sets of questions of concern to you and your organization. The assessment tool helps to determine if employee needs are being met at work, if they are motivated and achieving their goals and also assesses the level of employee morale. The results typically allow you to compare various departments with one another, thus disclosing areas of concern.
Departmental reviews -- While somewhat threatening, an organizational leader can contract with an external consultant to conduct a departmental review. Usually the focus is on improving efficiency and effectiveness that includes elements such as leadership style, employee engagement, performance management as well as leadership trust and integrity. These reviews are more people-oriented than paper based and often allow employees to share their issues in a confidential environment.
Listening tours -- Executive leaders can implement ongoing listening tours where groups of employees from various departments are invited to meet the senior leader. These can be private conversations and/or directed by a facilitator. Typically, the discussion focuses on the challenges they're experiencing and request solutions to the issues that arise. If these tours are conducted by a facilitator alone, you might find that employees will share more openly.
Bull pen meetings -- These meetings require pulling all employees together and/or designated larger groups and opening up conversation to employee interests. If employees are reluctant to speak up, try collecting written questions from the crowd. In most cases, once you listen to the various challenges, you'll have to make assumptions regarding whether these are caused by leadership style.
Customer service survey -- In most cases, when leaders treat employees poorly, they in turn often treat customers poorly. Therefore, conducting a customer service survey is also one means of identifying leadership challenges.
Multiple input management reviews -- Performance reviews called 360 reviews have become popular in the last number of years. These online assessments incorporate the opinion of participants specifically selected from colleagues, bosses, subordinates and sometimes vendors/customers. The results clearly demonstrate areas of strength and challenge and, as well, the documents provide suggestions for developmental improvement.
Having to deal with a dysfunctional departmental leader who bullies and intimidates staff is a difficult problem, especially when productivity appears to meet financial objectives. However, productivity will be short lived if something isn't done. Don't wait until there's a complaint from a human rights commission and/or department of labour. Do something now. Make the assessment of your organization culture and employee engagement a part of your organization culture. Be proactive.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org