Bad Boss? Really?

It’s there everywhere. Apparently bad bosses are the reason employees are unhappy if one were to go by latest reports.

Who are supposed to be bad bosses? There is a complete list out there of types of bad bosses for those who are interested.

Bullying, micromanaging, insecure, unapproachable, people-pleasing, credit-stealing, the list goes on. Bad bosses are apparently to be blamed for almost everything going wrong, from attrition, unhappy employees, poor customer service, to toxic work culture.

Of course all companies, big or small, have their share of black sheep or rotten apples. All the above about bad bosses being true, a consistently dipping graph of unhappy employees says something else altogether. There are questions that beg answers in these cases.

1.   Who hires bosses?

Every boss is also an employee who was hired in the first place because he or she showed promise and potential. Is there a method for hiring bosses? How are they termed competent for a leadership or supervisory position? How are they inducted into the role of a boss for the first time? Is it a “sink or swim” law, or is there a structured approach to releasing them into the role?

2.   How does a boss become bad?

A boss is a human being with insecurities and vulnerabilities. According to psychology, bullying is a behavior that is born out of a deep sense of insecurity. Same goes for self-serving behavior where individuals take credit for others’ accomplishments, or people-pleasing behavior. Indecisive behavior is usually due to a lack of confidence, whereas incompetence and insensitive behavior is due to a lack of awareness and direction. Is there a life-support system for bosses so they feel safe and secure? Who boosts their confidence and provides them a sounding board when they need it?

3.   How is a bad boss able to thrive? How is the boss able to get away with being bad?

Everything, including viruses, needs a suitable environment to breed. Everyone, including children learn the rules of behavior not only by observing, but also by perceiving what is tolerated by the environment. A child that learns to cheat and lie does so because she feels she is able to get away with it. At times a boss is someone who makes her boss look good (by probably fetching good revenue or sales), but behaves poorly with her team. Is there a way to objectively get the team’s feedback? How tolerant is your system against poor performance? (Because, a bad boss who is not liked by the team, is a poor performer at least in the people’s department.) Are there necessary mechanisms in place to arrest toxic and unconstructive behavior? Are there necessary mechanisms to reward positive behavior? Is there a safe environment for employees to give feedback about their bosses to upper management without worrying about retaliation? Is the feedback even addressed?

4.   Doesn’t every boss have a boss?

Someone hired that boss, and besides, the boss reports to someone higher up in the chain. Who takes responsibility for the boss’ behavior and performance? Are there clear and transparent lines of authority and accountability? Is there a process to measure and review a boss’ performance, especially the way he works with his people? Is the boss provided a regular and consistent feedback on her performance? Does the boss have someone she could trust with her vulnerabilities and insecurities?

5.   A bad boss? Not me!

Matrix reporting without clear lines of ownership adds to the confusion. A boss may just have the title, but not the authority. Perhaps someone else is calling the shots and the boss is probably a puppet in the game. That said, the team may not be aware of the fact, and may judge the boss to be an ineffectual, powerless leader. Are teams aware of their boss’ circle of influence and his extent of power? Does the boss feel empowered enough to make decisions without fearing the consequences?

Do we have bad bosses or poor leadership?

It is always easy to pin a problem on someone. Everyone loves a scapegoat. Having a bad boss also makes it easy for employees to demonstrate poor performance and unconstructive behavior with the excuse, “What can I do? I have a bad boss!”

When we look at the entire picture non-judgmentally, especially when we look at bad bosses causing a downward trend in employee satisfaction surveys, we just need to reflect on the following:

How are bosses hired? Is there a competency assessment and evaluation in place to select or promote the right person?

Are bad bosses inherently bad, or is the system making them bad?

Is there is a learning and development system in place for not just developing, but nurturing leaders?

Is the organization tolerant and supportive of vulnerabilities in leaders?

Is the organization intolerant towards apathetic leadership?

Lastly, this is probably the question we need to ask:

Is this a case of bad boss or poor organizational leadership?


Let’s Fix It: Hire Potential, not Degree

(This article was published on LinkedIn on Oct 16, 2014:

In my article Are we hiring people or headcount, I had talked about how as leaders we make the mistake of hiring highly qualified candidates for jobs that they quickly outgrow.

Way back in the 80’s and 90’s when the IT revolution was picking up, it made sense hiring candidates from premium B-schools and top engineering universities. Companies were in their upward growth curve and needed bright and entrepreneurial thinkers who would have enough excitement to stick around within the company for several years.

The story has changed today. Engineering and management students join companies with high aspirations only to be disappointed when they realize their skills are barely needed.

Over the past decade, burgeoning companies of the 90’s have exploded into large conglomerates after multiple mergers and acquisitions. The current economy and ever-changing business landscape now demands that companies retain their knowledge capital by hiring more stable players who will adapt and grow with the changing requirements.

Another mistake we leaders make is hire people at peak level talent. Rather, I would pitch in favour of peak potential.

Room for growth

Every designation or role has a minimum tenure during which employees get a chance to learn on the job and pick up competencies. Candidates whether sourced internally or externally, should be selected with a not-yet-acquired skill or competency gap. The tenure for the role should allow the employee to fill this competency gap.

Hire attitude, develop aptitude

Easier said than done, but job descriptions need to detail the responsive traits that are needed to accomplish the job successfully. For instance, a sales team might need candidates who won’t take no for an answer, or a technology team might benefit from candidates with the ability to quickly grasp the root of a problem and be at it till they arrive at a solution. A training coordinator probably needs to know how to think and process requirements in an organized manner while a customer support rep should probably be someone who goes out of her way to help people. Psychometric assessments usually help in identifying these inherent traits, which can be used as a base for building tangible on-the-job skills.

Upgrade and update the job description!

Job description documents definitely need an overhaul during an organizational change. In fact I recommend periodic revisions of this document to ensure that the hiring stays specific and relevant. As hiring managers we should ask ourselves,

  • “Does this role truly require an engineering (or B-school) candidate?”
  • “How can I make the job description more specific and relevant to today’s context?”
  • “Are there specific personality types or behavioral traits necessary for this role?”
  • “What are the non-negotiable or mandatory or must-have skills for this role?”
  • “What is the competency gap or minimum skill potential based on which this candidate could be hired?”
  • “For how long on an average will a candidate need to work in the current role in order to fulfill or outperform the competency gap?”

Investing in an incubation centre

A significant number of high potential candidates get eliminated using only qualification or experience as a minimum requirement. Hiring managers in their immediate business need, try to directly map the candidate profile with the required skill set and select people with an already optimum competency level. Such candidates naturally outperform their current roles within their first year of joining. By the time they are in their second year, they are already updating their LinkedIn profiles! It would help if companies establish an incubation centre where they groom and prepare future candidates for their businesses. These candidates need not necessarily be fresh graduates. There is an enormous amount of untapped and unharnessed potential in the form of women who seek to resume their careers after a break. There are a significant number of professionals seeking a mid-level career change.

Talent shortage is a myth! Talent is definitely available if we look at future potential rather than existing skills. I have also talked in another article about how building a future career roadmap leads to more engaged employees.

#FixIt #recruitment #talentmanagement #leadership

Are we hiring people or headcount?


As managers and leaders, one of our most crucial decisions is selecting the right people in our teams. There are decisions to be taken at every stage from initial screening to the final interview stage. Unfortunately, hiring is perceived as a number filling game where we don’t look at candidates as people but as profiles or headcount.

What’s wrong with “headcount”?

Like the words “resources” and “headcount” that have replaced the more humane term “employees” in the corporate workplace, candidates are now called “profiles”. A profile essentially indicates a snapshot of the candidate’s skills, experience, and attributes that help us ascertain a candidate’s suitability, just like resources indicate people with the necessary skills for executing a project.

There’s no problem referring to people as “profiles” or “resources”, so long as they are used in the right context. For instance, when we discuss the suitability of a candidate to an opening while discussing the hiring process, using the word “profile” is appropriate as we are describing the individual. Headcount is fine so long as we are talking about the number of people we need.

However, we tend to forget that we need an individual or a group of people with values and skills that align with the organization’s work culture and business goals. It’s more than just filling a spot, and that’s where the term “headcount” is very limiting.

A whole-brained decision

On the face of it, hiring seems to be a left-brained activity. However when we actually delve deeper, it needs to be a whole-brained activity. Filling a number needs little or no decision skills. Checking whether or not a candidate fits into the required skill set can even be automated. However, deciding whether or not a candidate works for the need and determining whether he is going to add value, involves right-brained thinking.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure

One of the root causes of employee disengagement is lack of long-term alignment of the employee’s skills with the company’s business goals and strategy. Note that we’re talking about goals and not targets. The tendency is to hire people for a project or an immediate business need, rather than selecting them for a long-term purpose. Hire in haste, repent at leisure. Okay so I have twisted an old proverb, but that is so true today! Headcount, profiles, resources – all these are terms that make sense only in a temporary context.

Idle brain YouTube’s workshop!

We hire engineers and MBA graduates for jobs that don’t really demand more than 10% of their prolific degrees. For instance, I know of companies that hire MBA graduates for market research that actually involves collecting information using Google search. I have also heard of software companies that recruit fresh engineering graduates who expect to get their hands into coding but generally end up monitoring reports or testing small functions. As these tasks aren’t challenging enough to keep the employees on their toes, we find them with plenty of idle time. No wonder there is heavy traffic on YouTube, Amazon, Facebook, and their likes! In the haste to complete hiring, managers also end up hiring “white elephants” who no longer serve any future purpose or requirement within the organization. Yes, we are talking about folks who are “on the bench” long after the project is complete.

Negativity and conflicts

Finding the right talent is never easy. It requires painstaking effort and a huge process of elimination at the time of short-listing. Unfortunately, the compulsion to “close the position” leads to short-listing of candidates by only considering their job skills. Consequently, the hiring manager ends up with “problem employees” who have an “attitude problem” or become “bad apples” in the team. Having such individuals puts unnecessary stress on the manager as they become overheads rather than assets.

Immediate gains, long-term loss

To understand the heavy cost of recruitment and its impact, here’s an interesting article on a survey conducted by Careerbuilder in2013. India alone had 84% companies reporting adverse impact due to bad hiring decisions. The loss isn’t the bottom-line alone. Loss of employee morale, loss of time in training and induction, reduced business opportunities, dwindling sales, and reduced repurchase from existing clients – all these are a result of poor hiring.

A dearth of talented successors

The tendency to be hasty in hiring also leads to lack of succession planning. A majority of players with talent and potential leave when they realize the company does not have a long term growth strategy. That leaves us with people who may or may not fit the bill as future leaders. And so begins yet another unconstructive cycle – bad managers leading to unhappy employees and dissatisfied customers, and so on.

Hiring ‘em right the first time!

So how do we zero on the right people and not just add to the headcount? Over the course of my career, I have had my share of hiring blunders that have helped me improve my ability to identify and select the right people.

Versatility versus virtuosity

What kind of team do you have? Is it a startup team that has been newly formed, or a team that is already well-established with a more or less well-defined roles and responsibilities? A startup team needs versatile players who can work with ambiguity and have the ability to lay down foundations for future teams. More than qualification, you need strong entrepreneurial skills and out-of-the-box thinking. People with experience in working for startup or small scale companies would usually best fit this requirement as they have the ability to deal with the unexpected. Mavericks would do a great job here. However, people with this profile are restless and would need to be provided challenging roles once the team eventually settles down to becoming an established center.

If you have an established team, then you probably need people with the required skills and experience for the job. You also need them to follow instructions and be diligent. Knowing that your team may not expand significantly in the coming years helps you pick up dedicated individuals who feed on job security and are happy being team players.

Global skills

If you are hiring for a global team with a matrix reporting structure, then communication and collaboration skills are a must. I would any day opt for a strong and persuasive communicator over a highly skilled individual, provided the job does not demand high-end skills.

Visualization helps!

A job opening is always your need for a problem solver. Look at the job description and try to imagine a person with these qualities. Does it seem like your chosen candidate would be able to solve your problem? Visualize your team working in the office. Can you picture your chosen candidate as one of them? If you cannot, chances are that the person will not fit into the team.

Trust your gut

Intuition is one of the most needed abilities for a hiring manager. Here you have a dream candidate. She has the right skills and the right experience. Except that you are unable to decide. Whether or not you believe, your intuition is trying to tell you something. One of my managers taught me, “When in doubt, reject!” This has always helped me. There are times when I have doubted my gut-feel and felt tempted to close the position. Nine times out of ten, I have hired the wrong people when I did that. Don’t worry about the ageing days or the follow-ups from your recruitment team. Wait for the right person to come along, and no matter what, listen to your intuition!

Leadership Development – Training versus Strategy

It never ceases to amaze me. Organizations today spend a huge amount of their training budgets in putting their employees through the classic Time Management programs where considerable emphasis is placed on being proactive versus reactive, spending time on tasks that are “important but not urgent”, and thinking “out of the box”. Paradoxically, these companies do not have a proactive leadership development strategy in place. They wait for client complaints, dwindling sales, exiting employees, and dropping earnings per share before they conclude that they need to “fix their leadership”.

Leadership development in a classroom?

Sadly though, a majority of leadership programs are designed and conducted like moral science lessons. Most managers being adults already know they need to “walk the talk”, “be a role model”, and “listen to their people”. There is no point in telling them what they already know. Some trainers do manage to make their sessions more interactive with role plays and activities, but once the training is over, the participants go back to their offices – back to square one! No matter how wonderful the trainer/facilitator or how impressive the content or presentation, the question that remains is, now what?

Real problems, real people, real situations

Thanks to today’s matrix global workplace structures, managers have to battle with complex situations like working with international customers, constantly changing processes and dynamics, multiple bosses, employees spread across different shifts or locations, to name a few. The challenge multiplies when teams need to ramp up quickly and star performers leave without a succession plan in place. Ultimately, managers have to resort to promoting the best out of the lot, who are pushed into the mainstream without a lifeguard.

Compare this to the situation even a decade ago when it was possible to observe and emulate your bosses. If you were unsure about which candidate to hire, or which employee to promote, you could check with your manager who would advise or guide you.

When you look at the situation today, who could a junior manager approach when faced with a dilemma? He may have attended the most expensive Crucial Conversations training, but how confident would he be about dealing with a political, back-stabbing team member? What would he know about keeping his team gainfully engaged when there are no projects in the near horizon?

The leadership development training that might have worked ten years ago, would no longer work effectively, simply because the theories remain theories without sufficient scope to learn by observation, or emulation. No matter how good a “high-potential” development plan or a succession plan looks on paper, it remains a mere theory if not supported by a robust leadership development strategy.

Making leadership development real

A strong leadership development strategy not only takes care of developing current leaders, but also aligns leadership with the culture of the organization. This means that every leader puts to practice the core values of the organization.

Here are some of the possible ways leadership development can be a strategy rather than a series of training programs.

Identifying and assessing basic leadership competencies during selection

For this, it is important to identify the top few mandatory behavioral competencies you want to see in your leaders no matter what domain, vertical, or department they manage. These could be People management, Planning, Customer service, Communication, Interpersonal relationship, and so on.

The management leadership in consultation with the executive HR could implement evaluation instruments to assess their leadership candidates on these parameters. All candidates, internal and external should be put through the assessment. These assessments could be 360-degree surveys (for internal candidates), group discussions, or other assessment center instruments, depending on the competencies identified. The management could also select candidates that they feel can be developed on competencies they may lack.

Rather than a face-to-face interview with only the hiring department manager, a behavioral interview round with a cross-functional leadership panel would help better decision making that is not subject to prejudices or bias. Moreover the managers from other departments would be able to exercise more objectivity than the hiring manager, who might feel pressurized to hire who she thinks is the best candidate. It is important that the talent management/OD leadership is also part of the interviewing as they would be able to ascertain implicit traits that others may not be able to spot as easily.

Getting them started

In case of first-time managers, it usually helps putting them through a basic orientation program where they understand the company’s vision and leadership principles. They also need to know about the leadership competencies expected out of them. The talent management team could also form a committee or support group for all first-time leaders and provide them basic resources to get them started. Here, it might also help to conduct instructor-led workshops/programs on leadership basics.

Next, the HR business partner and talent development leadership need to meet with the new leaders letting them know who they could reach out to. This also gives the new manager a sense of pride and belonging. This could be followed by a few months of on-the-job mentoring by his senior manager who could introduce the new manager slowly into the system.

Sustaining the energy

Like I mentioned earlier, even first-time managers already know the core principles of leadership because they have already worked under a manager. Even if they didn’t get to experience a great leader, they would at least be aware of what they shouldn’t be doing as leaders!

The first couple of years are going to be full of challenging situations that would provide plenty of learning opportunities to the new leader. Performance issues, customer escalations, attrition, unhappy employees, performance appraisal, and conflicting project priorities will not only test his willpower, but also his sense of right versus wrong. It is during these critical moments that new managers would need coaches and mentors who have been there, done that.

The talent management team can form a panel of senior management leaders who can act as coaches and mentors to these new leaders. Coaching is an excellent process as that would help the manager find his own solution to his challenges especially where it comes to decision-making and using his own intuition. Being mentored by senior leaders would help him learn other and more efficient ways of dealing with similar situations as these leaders would be sharing their real experiences.

A transition from individual contributor to manager is a painful process. The strongest emotion is that of loneliness as a manager cannot talk about their problems with their team. They cannot talk to their own manager either probably because she is on a different time zone in a different country!

A monthly ongoing series of one-hour workshop could be scheduled by the talent management team whereby one of the senior leaders in rotation could facilitate discussions on real topics and situations like “Dealing with political employees”, “How to keep the team engaged”, “Communicating new compensation policies”, and so on. The emphasis here is on discussion amongst the participants rather than a trainer/facilitator taking a behavioral learning session. Over a period of time, these managers naturally reach out to each other to compare notes and learn better ideas, and form their own emotional support group.

Blended learning in leadership development

A talent management team’s role is not merely limited to conducting programs but to facilitate different ways of developing talent through blended learning ranging from e-learning, on-the-job knowledge transfer, instructor-led sessions, or even activities like group discussions or seminars. All these enable holistic learning – both formal and informal. The talent management team could organize online learning resources in the form of videos, articles, and other presentation material to help leaders sharpen their knowledge on an ongoing basis. They could organize seminars from industry experts. There are so many free webinars out there on leadership that companies could well leverage.

Thinking out of the classroom!

As per basic learning theories and principles, adults learn best when they are put into situations that mimic real life. A classroom is as far from real life as it can be. It’s time we taught new leaders how to think out of the classroom rather than out of the box!

Employee disengagement begins with leader disengagement. A neglected leader will bring down the morale of a large number of employees and customers too along with her. Leadership development cannot be a series of training programs anymore. A solid and enduring leadership development strategy cannot be a quick fix! It is a critical requirement that needs to be revisited and revised on a regular basis to help the organization stay in context.