Inspired Genius or Bully?

Given a chance to hire Apple Inc.’s often-combative co-founder Steve Jobs, entrepreneur Joseph A. Kelley would have found a place for him — in a branch office or working at home. Jobs was an inspiring genius.  But he was also a demeaning, belligerent boss with a notorious my-way-or-the-highway attitude. And Jobs probably wouldn’t be a good fit at Kelley’s Tallahassee-based GTO (Gates That Open), a national remote access gate manufacturer.

Inspired Genius or Bully? Belligerent bosses can be destructive to a company by Buddy Nevins

Given a chance to hire Apple Inc.’s often-combative co-founder Steve Jobs, entrepreneur Joseph A. Kelley would have found a place for him — in a branch office or working at home. Jobs was an inspiring genius.  But he was also a demeaning, belligerent boss with a notorious my-way-or-the-highway attitude. And Jobs probably wouldn’t be a good fit at Kelley’s Tallahassee-based GTO (Gates That Open), a national remote access gate manufacturer.

“You have to put somebody like that in a remote location,” said Kelley, the long-time president of GTO. “I refer to personalities like that as a destructive hero. They can create magic, but when they are dealing with people, they create havoc. There are reasons why a lot of these people (like Steve Jobs) are consultants. I would rather not have them working in my building.”

Kelley echoed what many business experts believe: Success in small, medium and large businesses is usually a team effort.

After being recruited from the state Department of Commerce to run the two-year old company in 1999, Kelley instituted a team method approach. Within four years, GTO had increased business more than 400 percent. Today its residential, commercial and agricultural automatic gate openers are sold nationwide. He is quick to credit his 100 North Florida employees who work in the company’s headquarters in a Tallahassee office park for that success.

A joint vision binds the GTO employees. That goal is to have the best customer and employee relations so that the firm continues to be a leader in the domestic access control industry. “There are a lot of commonalities between our success and sports,” Kelley said. “We work together towards one goal — to win. To win we must work together.”

In many companies, however, it is the boss who is the biggest barrier to a well-oiled team. A study by the Florida State University of 750 mid-level employees in 2008 found widespread distrust of supervisors by employees:

Bad bosses infest big, medium and small companies. Christopher Iansiti has seen all forms of bad bosses as a management consultant. A former Tallahassee resident and FSU graduate, he runs an Atlanta-based firm that designs leadership training for corporate clients. “If you run a small business and you are a bad boss, employees check out. They are there, but they aren’t doing their best. They are disengaged and there is a cost to that. When they can, they will move on and there is a cost associated with turnover.”

The recent downturn only made matters worse. The economy fostered fear about the future. Worried about their own prospects, toxic supervisors are sometimes taking their frustrations out on employees.

“Anytime there is more stress, uncertainty and limited availability of other opportunities for a job, the workplace atmosphere can change,” explained Wayne A. Hochwarter, the Jim Moran professor of management at FSU.

Hochwarter’s research further described the traits of the toxic boss. He said they use “public criticism, loud and angry tantrums, rudeness, coercion, publicly ridiculing and blaming subordinates for mistakes they did not make, yelling and bullying.”

Sometimes bad bosses are more subtle, but just as damaging. “Too many managers lead by fear,” Iansiti said. “One boss would say something like, ‘If you don’t do a good job, you know the front office is planning layoffs.’”

A 2009 University of Phoenix study found workplaces rife with such employee intimidation since the economic crisis hit. Many of the 1,150 employees questioned described threatening communications from supervisors, including “Be thankful you have a job,” “There are lots of qualified people on the street who would love your job” and “You can be replaced.”

The only accomplishment achieved by this type of boss is negative. Their tactics serve to destroy morale, according to numerous studies. Hochwarter has found those negative employees are outcomes associated with supervisors’ aberrant behavior, including impaired work productivity and poorer heath.

One woman who worked for an Arizona lawyer wrote her story on author Stanley Bing’s blog dedicated to bad bosses: “During the six years I worked for him, he would insult me, tell me he didn’t know if he liked me, tell me that I was ‘a bright woman, so please don’t disappoint him’ … Why did I stay? I was a single woman raising two daughters and he paid very well. He knew that he was a difficult, crazy man and he paid a high salary so that he could ‘trap’ somebody who really needed the cash.” In the end, she quit and threatened him with a restraining order if he ever contacted her.

“Employees pay a heavy price for workplace bullying,” according to David C. Yamada of Suffolk University Law School, Boston, writing in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership. The costs include “major bottom-line consequences,” including increased health care costs caused by stress, high turnover, absenteeism, poor customer relationships, acts of sabotage and losses from a worker’s job effort falling “between the maximum effort of which one is capable and the minimum effort one must give in order to avoid being fired.” Add to that possible litigation resulting from abusive work situations.

The creations of the best workplace begin at the job interview. The GTO team is selected and groomed from the first employment interview to be part of a winning group. Supervisors look for employees who spread the praise when talking about their experiences. “I ask them to tell me about their most successful achievements,” Kelley said. “I ask, ‘What do you attribute that achievement to?’ If I hear a lot of ‘I’s’ in there, like ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that,’ I wonder if they recognize the value of a team.”

Employers should only hire supervisors that can motivate others to feel they are part of a team. “It is really about people skills. It is a skill that is learned more than it is taught as an academic subject. It is really about someone having people skills,” said Hochwarter.

Every supervisor should practice good communications, according to numerous studies. Ruby Rouse, a professor of marketing, communication and research at the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, said her research indicates that sharing information with employees is even more important in troubled times like the recent economic downturn. Her 2009 study found that 55 percent of employees emphasized a desire for their supervisors to increase the level of transparency about company operations during a financial crisis. Failure to do so harms employee morale and creates a negative workplace environment.

Also vital is listening. Good supervisors learn to listen to their employees’ ideas and concerns. Thomas Peters, the business consultant and co-author of one of the most widely read business management books ever written, “In Search of Excellence,” calls listening an indispensable part of good supervision. “Most bosses would agree that listening is ‘important.’ But, again, do they make it a strategic obsession? Because beyond a shadow of doubt that is precisely what listening per se should be,” Peters wrote in the Financial Times in 2011. “Listening is … the heart and soul of engagement, the heart and soul of recognition, the heart and soul of strategic partnering, the heart and soul of learning.”

Supervisors have to concern themselves with the macro view, the big picture. Listening is a way to find out what is happening at the micro level with each task in their workplace. It is also a way to generate ideas. Listening can build morale. Employees work harder when they believe supervisors care enough to consider what they have to say. “One of the best non-verbal skills good managers practice is listening,” said FSU’s Hochwarter. “Everybody puts their two cents in, but does anybody listen? The best managers do.”

Some of the best management skills are non-verbal. Supervisors should “stand straight and have a friendly face. Smiling works,” Hochwarter said. “Open doors. Say hello in the halls. Carry yourself with optimism. It is important to show you are having fun at work.”

The most important non-verbal technique is “just working hard,” he added.

“It sets an example that can spread. If a lot of people believe the boss doesn’t work very hard, well … ”

Supervisors must also learn to respect difference among people, not try to fit everybody into some preconceived notion of what an employee should be. “Bosses today will be dealing with everybody from a kid just out of school in Generation Y to a person about to retire,” Iarossi noted. The best bosses realize that supervising such individuals with vastly different experience requires vastly different approaches, he said. That does not mean that the company goals should be altered, but it may mean that different employees reach the same finish line on different routes.
Most of all, experts and research agree that the best supervisors don’t resort to yelling, shouting or other types of bullying. It will destroy the workplace and damage the bottom line.

“Treat people as adults. Treat them as partners; treat them with dignity and respect. Treat them — not capital spending and automation — as the primary source of productivity gains. These are the fundamental lessons from the excellent companies’ research. In other words, if you want productivity and the financial reward that goes with it, you must treat your workers as your most important asset. These companies give control over their destinies; they make meaning for people. They turn the average Joe and Jane into winners,” wrote Peters and Robert Waterman in “In Search of Excellence” almost three decades ago. It still works.

As Kelley, GTO’s president said, “Every small business should run like a team, together.”

»    26 percent said their boss frequently has trouble managing his or her anger

»    27 percent said their boss vigorously pursues undeserved rewards  

»    41 percent said their boss habitually pushes work on to others rather than doing it himself or herself  

»    31 percent said their boss regularly seeks undeserved admiration from others at work  

»    33 percent said their boss makes sure that others stroke his or her ego on a daily basis  

»    19 percent said their boss can be counted on to act enviously toward others who experience good things  

»    23 percent said that their boss purposefully hoards resources that could be useful to others at work.