Is it better to be a so-called 'bad boss' than it is to be a supervisor who is enlightened and empathetic?
No. But there are a few silver linings to being a bad boss. That, at least, is one conclusion you can reach, based on research released earlier this week by Ravi S. Gajendran, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.
Specifically, Gajendran and his team found that workers leave good bosses and bad bosses in equal measure. So the first silver lining is markedly obvious: If you are, indeed, a bad boss, your turnover rates won't be any higher than they would be if you were a benevolent, philosopher-king kind of boss.
In other words, Gajendran's findings, to some extent, counter the commonplace wisdom that employees join companies but leave managers.
But a deeper dive into the research reveals that there's a difference between employees who leave good bosses and employees who leave bad bosses. For one thing, employees leaving on amicable terms are far more likely to become valuable alumni assets to the organization--as sources of future sales, talent, or information.
One obvious question to ask about Gajendran's research is: How is it possible that workers with good bosses and bad bosses could leave their companies at roughly the same rates?
Again, the answer lies in the deeper dive. Employees with bad bosses are merely looking for a way out. They're more likely to jump to the first feasible opportunity. By contrast, employees with good bosses are more likely to receive proper training, attention, and development. All of which, in time, makes those employees attractive to outside employers. They'll leave because they are offered higher salaries and greater responsibility elsewhere. Under those circumstances of departure, they are more likely to become valuable alumni assets.
Therefore, the key takeaway, for companies with good and bad bosses alike, is to pay closer attention to so-called "off-boarding" processes--the often-awkward mechanics by which an employee leaves your organization. A superb off-boarding process can't erase years of negative memories about a bad boss. But it can improve the chances that alumni will help out once they're part of another team. Inc.com's Will Yakowicz has written about why every owner or CEO should conduct the exit interviews herself. Owners can use the interviews as a chance not only to learn more about why employees are leaving, but to create a positive final impression.
Another way to make a strong off-boarding impression is to make a final overture to retain the departing employee--even if you think it’s unlikely she'll accept it. "If managers don't make an attempt to retain an employee, the employee thinks, 'Look, I put in all this effort and no one seems to care….' Those ex-employees are less likely to help the organization later," Gajendran told the University of Illinois's news site. "Managers who make a good-faith attempt at retaining the leaving employee actually elicit the most goodwill from alumni. When people believe that they were valued by their former organization, they are more likely to have goodwill toward the organization and, thus, more likely to be a source of future benefits."
Regardless, by all counts--and by common sense--it's better for your organization to have kind bosses. If you need a number to validate that feeling, look no further than Gallup's 2015 State of the American Manager report, according to which an employee's engagement could vary by as much as 70 percent, based on how much the employee enjoys working for her boss.
Still, you can find anecdotal evidence that bad bosses offer hidden advantages to the employees who have to endure them. Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science at Stanford University and author of The No Asshole Rule, explained in London's Telegraph that bad bosses can become a kind of negative mentor, presenting workers with clear cut instances of how not to act, when they themselves are in positions of leadership. Likewise, there are instances when bad bosses can inadvertently create team unity, since workers become bonded in their collective challenge in working for and "managing up" that particular boss.
Another silver lining is that--for the rest of your career--you'll have answers to any interview questions about handling adversity. Sutton discussed an employee he knew who'd worked in a tight-knit industry for a few bad bosses. "So when she went to interview for another job and was asked how she dealt with difficult people or situations," he tells the Telegraph, "she just listed her managers."