Bad bosses do exist — and Christie Lindor ’02 has seen a few during 18-plus years as a management consultant across some 20 industries and sectors. She has also learned that a terrible manager is not the leading culprit when talented people pack up their office.
“In my experience, there’s more to the story than just people leaving bad leaders. Most turnover is the direct result of a broader system, the organizational culture,” she says, describing culture as an ecosystemic mashup of values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, symbols, rituals, attitudes and behaviors shared by employees and driven by leadership. “Bad bosses are one piece of a greater cultural pie.”
Lindor cites an article in the Harvard Business Review, which reports that employees leave good and bad bosses at almost comparable rates. “Good leadership doesn’t reduce employee turnover precisely because of good leadership,” write Ravi S. Gajendran and Deepak Somaya. “Supportive managers empower employees to take on challenging assignments with greater responsibilities, which sets employees up to be strong external job candidates.”
Here, the alumna shares markers of a toxic workplace to urge a turnaround.
Unclear vision and purpose
Working for an organization that does not have a clear or even realistic vision of the future is like being on a bus without a destination. Lack of clarity creates uncertainty at the very top of the leadership chain, sending ripples across the company. Where many leaders go wrong is in creating a vision and mission statement but not making it real. To encourage buy-in and shape consistency in culture, leaders must keep their mission and vision upfront and center in all decision-making and actions. Asking employees for feedback on ways to bring a vision to life (or even clarify it further) can go along way when it comes to adoption.
Compromised values and beliefs
Employees can now take to social media and hold a company accountable — internally and in the marketplace — for living the values and beliefs it preaches. In one positive move, the influential Business Roundtable has redefined the purpose of a corporation, looking past short-term profits to consider customers, employees, suppliers and the broader community. With this recent shift, companies can scale their purpose and actions in a way that supports their value system.
Lack of connection and appreciation
Having a diverse, inclusive and equitable work environment is no longer a “warm and fuzzy” company benefit. It is a strategic imperative that can mean the difference between winning and losing in the marketplace. One organization I worked with developed a shared definition of what diversity and inclusion meant at the company, and gained an understanding of how unconscious bias impacts colleagues’ day to day experience. They then spent a year educating employees on what inclusion and diversity means, how biases show up on their immediate teams, and ways to overcome them. While that may seem small, it made a significant impact on the level of awareness across the company. It is equally important to create “micro-habits” of appreciation and recognition. Another company focused on improving how employees give and receive feedback on their performance feedback, and moved to recognize employees in a manner that is important to them.
Uncertainty in the face of massive change
About 65% of children entering primary school will hold jobs that do not exist today, according to the World Economic Forum. Yet most organizations focus on near-term goals rather than preparing their technology, teams and infrastructure for this immense evolution of work. Such uncertainty filters into the day-to-day experience of employees, pushing them to other companies that lean into the disruption and demonstrate agility. If you are doing business in the 21st century, you are guaranteed to face disruption in your organization, whether it is technology driven or unforeseen competitors (Amazon's positioning is creating new types of competitors regularly!). Tackle massive changes head-on, and keep employees not only informed but engaged throughout the journey. Most important, leaders and employees should work together to articulate meaning and purpose to their work. Humans are wired to want to belong to something bigger than themselves.
Stagnant structures and processes
Phrases like “That’s how we have always done it around here” or “What if we change and fail?” signal a change-resistant organization. To survive and keep employees happy, companies must maintain a constant and agile flow of movement. This means incorporating a “fail fast, fail often” culture that embraces innovation, working to make internal processes lean and efficient, and improving technology to minimize unnecessary rework and frustration.