Bad Bosses Are Bad for Business

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012


According to Inc. magazine, bad bosses are bad for business. I mean really bad. This sobering article/graphic is worth skimming.

Why is this so?

Look at the amount of money spent on management development training every year. You’d think that leaders at every level of those organizations would be exemplars of good practice. In The Knowing-Doing Gap (Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton 2000), the authors note that managers tend to know what to do, but they don’t do it. So, we probably don’t need another book on leadership or another training program. Pfeffer and Sutton suggest a number of possible causes of this problem. I won’t attempt to summarize their work, but I will urge you to read their book.

When I was revising Beyond the Wall of Resistance for a new edition in 2010, I found that the failure rate of change hadn’t budged since I wrote the first version back in 1996. The failure rate of change in organizations still hovered near 70 percent. As I explored the reasons why, I was reminded of The Knowing-Doing Gap and went back to it. I even asked the authors for permission to use that phrase to describe a theme in my own book. (They graciously agreed.)

At the same time, I learned about the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey called Immunity to Change. (Another book well worth reading.) And I think that the Immunity to Change trap is one thing that keeps the Knowing – Doing Gap alive.

Kegan and Lahey provide a powerful analogy. It’s as if we had an immune system designed to protect the status quo. Even though we say we truly want to lose those extra pounds, our Immunity to Change system kicks in to keep things the way they are. So try like you will, not only will you likely fail at losing weight, you’ll actually gain an additional 7 percent.

I believe that organizations have their own immune systems that support whatever management practices they are currently using. These immune systems often operate well below the surface and are masked by noble sounding values statements. It is easy to believe our own hype and think that we are actually embodying these lofty sentiments. We miss the fact that vision and values statements are aspirations and not reflections of current reality.

This confusion of aspiration versus reality is a trap that catches good people. (You’ll note that I am not speaking about those people who willfully say one thing and do another in a Machiavellian attempt to manipulate others. Rather, I am sad to say that I am talking about people like you and me.) Let’s say that you read the Inc. article and say, “We’ve got to change our evil ways.” (Or maybe you just said, “We’ve got to get better at managing around here.”) The temptation will be to fix the problem. And how do we typically do that? Training and mandates. Maybe even motivational pep talks and the management book-du-jour on everyone’s desk. My advice: don’t do any of those things.

Kegan and Lahey suggest that persistent problems don’t lend themselves to fix-it solutions. It’s like buying your fifteenth diet book and hoping that this one will hold some secret to weight loss. “Ah, pork rinds, that’s the key to losing weight. At last, I found the cure!”

They suggest that we need to identify and work on those fundamental beliefs (or as they call them, big assumptions) that hold things in place. You might ask yourself, “What are our beliefs and assumptions that keep the quality of management practice at the current level?” In Immunity to Change, the authors guide you through a simple and elegant process to get at those big assumptions. It is worth the time and introspection to apply their approach.

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