Stress in the workplace is far too pervasive. Employees concerned with watching their backs or buttering up their boss don’t perform to their potential. Samuel Culbert, award-winning author and professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, sheds light on the misguided mindset of managers that saps morale in his new book, Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions (Oxford University Press, June 2017).
Culbert pinpoints why so many of today’s managers have gone astray by buying into the conventional managerial way of thinking. He states in his book, “The American work culture leads managers to implement practices that contradict basic facts of human nature — about how people think, communicate and function. Worse yet, the culture encourages managers to support practices that prevent everyone, themselves included, from speaking about these contradictions.” Managers may be well intentioned, but their excessive focus on their own advancement triggers insecurities that leads them to treat those working for them solely as resources to use in furthering their own success.
The corporate culture of self-advancement steers managers away from their number one assignment: creating the conditions that allow their teams to succeed. Culbert points out that business schools spend little time teaching MBAs the skills they need to help others succeed. Frustrated employees realize that speaking truth to power will only backfire on them, and so only tell managers what they want to hear. This mentality extends all the way up the hierarchy of an organization and it’s essentially what leads to the scandals we read about all too often in the media. Undoubtedly, if a culture of straight talk had prevailed a decade ago at the leading rating agencies, a major financial crisis would have been averted.
Another symptom of the boss-dominated employee-manager relationship is the performance review. Employees’ salaries and bonuses are tied to their manager’s subjective rating. Such a system only adds to employees’ reluctance to speak candidly.
While Culbert offers little optimism that widespread change is on the horizon — afterall, the cultural expectation of keeping one’s head down and not rocking the boat makes it difficult for people to be forthright about a need for change — he does believe that individual companies can take up the cause by promoting authentic camaraderie. Old expectations of immediate accomplishments, perfection and competitiveness need to be replaced to eliminate the motive for people to deceive each other. Instead, Culbert recommends that accountability be two-sided, so that not only is the employee accountable for results, but the manager is accountable for the employee’s success. In this way, no one wins unless both succeed, but at the same time, both gain by being transparent.
Good People, Bad Managers is Culbert’s wake-up call to corporate America that it’s squandering employee capacity. It’s time for game-changing strategies to put the focus where it belongs — on cultivating trusting relationships that allow honest give-and-take on any issues that arise.
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