• OPINION
  • 23
  • AUG 2012

What is it about bad bosses that we find so fascinating? The seven deadly sins of management

Posted by: Julian Birkinshaw Tag(s): Management, Leadership, Business management & operation, Organisational behaviour, with Comments

We all know bad managers – be they ambitious and aggressive, doing whatever it takes to move up the corporate ladder, or the opposite: managers thrust into their position without the skill or the will to do the job properly.

I continue to be a little puzzled about why so many managers do such a poor job. We have known what “good management” looks like for decades, and enormous sums have been spent on programs to help managers manage better. And yet the problem endures: In a recent survey I conducted, less than a quarter of respondents would encourage others to work for their manager.

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve relied on education of positive practices. We point to the things managers should be doing, which tends to get bogged down in platitudes. For example, when Google launched a big data-driven program to identify what separated their top managers from the rest, and they ended up with bromides such as “be a good coach”, “empower your team” and “be a good communicator”.

So let’s try the opposite approach – to focus on the bad behaviours we are trying to get rid of.

Here is my stab at defining what bad management looks like, using those old favourites, the Seven Deadly Sins. I developed these ideas during seminars with executives where we discussed their experiences of good and bad management. Of course, a bit of artistic licence is necessary here, to adapt words like “greed” and “lust” to corporate life, but on the whole I think they work pretty well.  I have even put a little questionnaire together to help office workers across the land to rate their line manager.  Does your boss succumb to only one or two of these sins?  Or is he a seven-star sinner?

I have illustrated some of the sins with examples of famous Chief Executives, because these are stories we are all familiar with.  But of course the sins apply at all management levels in the organisation – they are as relevant to the first-line supervisor as they are to the big boss.

A greedy boss pursues wealth, status, and growth to get himself noticed.  In short, he is an empire builder, and we don’t have to look far to find examples of empire-building bosses. Perhaps the stand-out example today is Eike Batista, the Brazilian entrepreneur who has made the EBX Group (energy, mining and logistics) into Brazil’s fastest-growing company and him into the eighth-richest person in the world.  Formerly married to a Playboy cover-girl, and an ex-champion powerboat racer, he has now set his sights on becoming the first person in the world to amass a $100 billion fortune.

Lust is also about vanity projects – investments or acquisitions that make no rational sense, but play to the manager’s desires. Edgar Bronfman, heir to the Seagram empire, leaps to mind here .To the “widespread astonishment” of the business world, he traded in the company’s valuable holding in chemical giant Du Pont in order to buy up Universal Studios. A quick glimpse at his vitae helps explain his motives – even in his teens he was dabbling in song-writing and movie-making.

Wrath doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation.  “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, Fred “the shred” Goodwin, and “Neutron” Jack Welch were all famous for losing their cool. We see this at all levels in the hierarchy - my first boss would turn bright red and start shaking before he yelled at some poor soul for failing to debug a piece of software properly.

Gluttony in the business world is where a manager puts too much on his proverbial plate. He needs to get involved in all decisions, he needs to be continuously updated, he never rests.  We call this micro-managing, and Gordon Brown did it during his brief stay at Number 10 Downing Street, where he insisted on reviewing minor departmental decisions and expenditures.  It’s not much fun working for such bosses, because they have a tendency, in Charles Handy’s famous phrase, to “steal” your decisions. There is also a risk that decision-making gets stuck: Lego CEO, Jurgen Knudstorp, notes that companies are far more likely to fail through “indigestion” than through “starvation,” as Gordon Brown’s labour government discovered.

Healthy pride quickly tips over into hubris – an overestimation of your own abilities.  In all the recent corporate crises –News International, Nokia, BP, even Toyota – there was tangible evidence of hubris in the manner and words of the executives at the top. Pride does, indeed, go before a fall.  Perhaps the biggest tale of misplaced pride in recent years was Enron – its executives liked to think of themselves as the “smartest guys in the room,” and they shortened the company’s vision from becoming the “world’s leading energy company” to becoming “the world’s leading company.” And we all know what happened there. 

Envy manifests itself most clearly when a manager takes credit for the achievements of others. But envy also rears its head in less obvious ways: when a manager chooses not to promote a rising star, for fear of showing up his own limitations; or when he keeps important information to himself, rather than sharing it with his team.

Sloth is workplace apathy— the managers who fall prey to sloth are simply not doing their job. They are inattentive, they don’t communicate effectively, and they have no interest in their team’s needs. Instead, they focus on their own comforts and quite often, on personal interests outside of the workplace. We have all seen glimpses of sloth in the workplace: the boss who takes long lunch-breaks but is “too busy” to sit down with us; the colleague who doesn’t deliver on his part of a proposal; the executive who promises to get back to you on something but never does.  Although sloth rarely makes it to the headlines, I suspect there are shades of sloth in most managers. The cost of sloth can be very high when management fails to make necessary strategic adjustments when the business is in crisis.

If we take all seven sins together, they map nicely onto the classic strategy loop, in which a manager sets direction, monitors and reviews performance, and then makes corrections.

If you are a boss (and most of us are), do your own self-assessment, and figure out which of these sins you are most prone to.  Remember – no-one is perfect, and the chances are you are guilty of at least one of these sins.  If you are brave, ask your own team to rate you, as a one-off exercise or as part of a broader 360-degree assessment process.  The most challenging part is acting on the information you receive. But the advantage of this approach, compared to other similar exercises, is that at least we can now put a label on what you are trying to avoid.

Rate your Boss

Answer the following seven questions for yourself or your current boss.  Answer each question on a 1-5 scale, where 1=”not at all” and 5= “to a very large extent”.  Then count up the number of 4s and 5s – that tells you how many sins he or she is prone to.

1. To what extent do you/ does your boss seek growth for growth’s sake?

2. To what extent do you/ does your boss pursue ‘pet’ projects he/she is interested in, regardless of whether they fit with the organisation’s goals?

3. To what extent do you/ does your boss become visibly angry at work when relatively small mistakes are made?

4. To what extent do you/ does your boss get heavily involved in the details of all the projects he/she is responsible for?

5. To what extent do you/ does your boss seek out recognition and plaudits for what he/she has achieved?

6. To what extent do you/ does your boss try to take credit for the good work of others?

7. To what extent do you/ does your boss organise things for his/her own convenience, rather than taking care of the needs and interests of others?

Author(s)

Birkinshaw is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. He is author of "Reinventing Management and Becoming a Better Boss" (September 2013, Wiley)
There are 10 posts by Julian Birkinshaw in Opinion.

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