Anyone who has ever worked for a bullying boss will know only too well the stress, fear, anxiety and insecurity it can bring to every working day and every sleepless night.
Research has shown us, time and again, that the relationship with a leader has a very significant impact on the levels of engagement and amount of discretionary effort that teams and individuals are prepared to give. We know it has a direct influence over productivity, the attraction and retention of talent, levels of creativity and the prevailing atmosphere & climate within which people do their work.
The thing is, we’ve known all that for quite a while. The MacLeod report on ‘engaging for success’ and the subsequent research that generated into the impact of engagement on results was more than 10 years ago now. A whole decade of talking about engagement, discussing the need for a more engaging leadership style and recognising that leader behaviour needs to change.
So how much has leader behaviour actually shifted as a result?
Clearly there has been progress in some quarters, but the mere fact that an infrastructure of support for workplace mental health has become such a necessity in today’s organisation speaks volumes.
Other research from organisations like the Samaritans tells us that suicide is the single largest killer in the UK of males between 30 and 50 and that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. It would be naïve and disingenuous to assume that this had nothing to do with the workplace. Undoubtedly there are many other factors influencing these statistics, but it seems very likely that the behaviour of leaders toward their teams and key players is an important contributor.
Since the financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent decade of austerity-measures, cost-cutting and desperate tactics to survive, many organisations appear to have reverted to a more traditional and autocratic style that has much more to do with reward & coercion-based management than it does with a more contemporary approach to engaging leadership.
So what is it about the style of management or leadership that brings challenges for mental health and wellbeing?
- Well, for one thing, the constant focus on numbers, targets and deadlines is inherently likely to be a cause of stress. Making individuals accountable for such a simplistic view of the achievements of others puts them in a position where resorting to bullying or simply passing the pain down the line is far more likely. It also increases anxiety and insecurity.
- Secondly, the de-layering and reduced staffing levels of most organisations has significantly increased workloads, particularly for the leaders themselves – and then we’re back to 1.
- So many of our organisations are still designed to operate in compartments – the largest simply have no choice – which encourages tribal attitudes, unhealthy competition and causes an absence of empathy, collaboration or supportiveness in the culture. Trying to ‘bolt-on’ an engaging style to an organisation that is designed to operate in the opposite way is unlikely to be successful.
- Leaders & managers have often been encouraged and taught by their earlier career that the best results are achieved by those who are toughest, most driven and most demanding, while those adopting supportive and developmental leadership styles are often seen as weak and a soft-touch. Female leaders in such a culture may be treated with suspicion and may thus become even more autocratic to avoid the criticism.
So what happens to the people at the sharp-end when all this un-enlightened ‘boss’ behaviour becomes the norm?
by Nigel Girling CMgr FCMI FInstLM FRSA