Horrible Bosses

8337314_lBy Bryan Baker // from the April 2015 issue of 904 Magazine

There’s an oft-quoted scenario from the cult classic 1999 film Office Space in which managers and middle managers meander to the cubicles of employees and redundantly request menial, mundane “TPS Reports.” What makes it funny is its simplistic truth: we, all of us, are asked professionally to do things we sometimes don’t want to do by people we sometimes don’t like.

The dynamics of the boss-employee relationship is one that can correlate, if not cause, company productivity. And since we live in a world where negatives are discussed far more often than positives, it is how bosses demotivate or demoralize employees that form the subject of conversation over dinner or drinks for countless millions of people.

A survey by the Harvard Business School found employee morale declines sharply after six months on the job in a staggering 85 percent of companies. The survey blamed managers for that lack of morale—for example, firing employees at the first sign of business trouble, dishing out more criticism than praise, and making it difficult for employees to do their jobs.

“Any type of management or leadership deal boils down to two primary concepts: one is leadership and the other is environment or culture,” says Kelly Harrison, director of the University of North Florida’s Center for Professional Training and Development.

Harrison has been a corporate trainer and taught leadership at the university level, where he believes most problems fall into those general categories. Harrison says micromanagement and lack of leadership are the two most common and likely reasons managers demoralize and fail to motivate employees.

Micromanagement isn’t just the annoying bastion of Office Space’s patronizing boss Bill Lumbergh; it can lead to far more formidable problems.

“It’s the standpoint of, ‘You hired me to do a specific job, let me do my job. If you’re not going to let me do my job, then why’d you hire me in the first place?’” says Harrison. “Micromanaging is one of those things that really turns people off, and it presents issues for communication. It automatically throws up insecurity in the employees, they automatically become defensive about certain things, it creates a bad scene all the way around.”

Sometimes managers have good intentions when micromanaging, Harrison says. They want to make sure the job is done right, and are checking up on for what they are responsible.

“If [a boss’] leadership is lacking from the standpoint that there’s no vision, no direction and people don’t feel a part of the organization, they don’t feel like their contribution means anything, then that can also lead to a demoralization of employees,” adds Harrison.

Some leadership failures come from lack of training. Sometimes, says Harrison, employees are promoted into leadership positions because they are the most knowledgable or perform the best. But if those people are not trained to be managers properly, problems can arise with employees, and a lack of respect or poor performance may result.

“If that’s the case then people have a tendency to fall back on what they know. People may be exhibiting management or supervision characteristics based on how they were supervised.”

And so demotivation becomes the ultimate revolving door. People, bosses or otherwise, stick to what they know and have learned in the workplace. If this learned behavior has only been critical and negative, that type of style can be passed along.

“If your leadership of the organization doesn’t set the standard of what’s acceptable versus what’s unacceptable then things continue to fester, the status quo continues and things don’t get any better.”

The National Federation of Independent Business lists several “surefire” ways to demotivate employees: public criticism; failing to provide praise; not following up; giving unachievable goals or deadlines; not sharing company data; not honoring creative thinking; and micromanagement (the worst, says NFIB).

Many of those items come from communication or a lack thereof—which Harrison calls “a huge issue.” But it’s an issue that isn’t easily corrected.

Such is the life of a manager—where it seems it is sometimes easier to demotivate employees than motivate them. But the sign when it gets really bad? When three of your employees pull an Office Space—and beat a piece of office equipment to shreds. m