Recently, my Inc. colleague Jeff Haden wrote a piece about the connection between bad bosses and toxic work environments, citing some 57 separate studies that effectively came to the same conclusion: "Destructive leadership significantly decreases employee job satisfaction." I immediately found myself wondering why otherwise intelligent business and thought leaders would need even one, let alone 57, studies to prove what should be self-evident -- that horrible bosses create horrible places to work. What seemed even more important to understand, though, is how, in the face of such a literal mountain of evidence, do these awful executives manage to keep their jobs?
Until now, it's been a question that most have been content to treat as rhetorical. After all, until a year or so ago, when presented with the century-old "take it or leave it" bargain, most workers felt compelled to take the "it" -- even if it included any or all of poor treatment, a toxic workplace, and a lack of care. Then came the Great Realization.
In the Great Resignation that followed, some 41 million workers walked away from their positions, many in search of better conditions. So, it seems employees have largely decided to stop taking it. No longer are they content to tolerate bad bosses and the toxic environments they propagate. The trouble is, the wrong people are leaving. It's the bad bosses that should be on their way out. Unfortunately, for the most part, they aren't, despite massive numbers of resignations because of them. I decided to take a look at exactly why, and what the rest of us can do about it.
To begin, there is no single reason that bad bosses keep their jobs. A few years ago, business giant Warren Buffett took a stab at guessing why they do. He posited that toxic CEOs hang on for three principal reasons: 1) an absence of written performance standards for many of these leaders; 2) the fact that most CEOs have no immediate supervisor; and 3) that the boards that these CEOs typically answer to desire to maintain collegial boardroom atmospheres, and so almost never directly confront their charges on any performance issue, let alone those having to do with the happiness of his or her associates. While I buy that these three reasons -- assembled from the bird's-eye perspective at the greatest organizational heights -- apply in some cases, they certainly don't explain why all bad bosses stay employed. To fully understand this issue, you have to look at the problem from every altitude, not just the top. In doing so, a common theme emerges.
Mostly it's a courage problem, or at the very least one of conflict avoidance. Take Buffett's excuses. The reason most CEOs don't have clear performance standards is because most boards avoid the discomfort that comes with presenting him or her with them. Likewise for the point about supervision. Among the roles these boards are expected by shareholders to play, whether they choose to accept it or not, is to supervise and to hold CEOs accountable to deliver the expected results of the organization and, ostensibly, to reflect its values. Lastly, the desire for collegiality is less about back-slaps and smiles than it is about ensuring that board meetings and other interactions are devoid of difficult conversations around accountability or CEO behavior. And this avoidance strategy doesn't end here.
Remember that any executive hire, especially C-suite hires like the chief of the company, involve many well-placed people -- senior HR leaders, board members, and executives at the white-shoe recruiting firm that led the search. So, removing these bad bosses would require all of these people to admit that they either made a mistake or missed a gargantuan red flag. People like this rarely admit to having committed errors. So, they conspire to live with their mistake rather than own up to it.
It is also helpful to remember that in many of these organizations -- whether privately held, public, for profit, or not -- the people at these levels run together. They are friends. They socialize together. Their kids are in school together. They serve on community boards together. They belong to the same clubs and frequent the same service providers. As a result, for any part of the clique to move on another part of it becomes problematic and requires enormous amounts of fortitude.
Many companies hang on to bad bosses for fear of upsetting investors, creating bad press, or inviting litigation. So, they find doing nothing more favorable than airing their dirty laundry. As a result of this general lack of courage, these crafters of toxic cultures are left to roam freely, without compunction. Sensing the reluctance of the organization to deal with them, over time, these awful executives double down on their bad behavior, eventually making the work environment unbearable.
Finally, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome begins to overtake many of these organizations. I have seen it first-hand. Left uncorrected, those constantly abused by a tormentor will, in time, begin to see him or her as a benefactor. Once this happens, finding a collective bloc with the courage to speak against the aggressor becomes very difficult. But regarding these people as aggressors and tormentors is precisely what is going to be required to make progress. And the very results of the business demand that it must happen.
Here's why. A recent Talenteck study published by Harvard Business Review found that employee experience is directly correlated to business results. In fact, top quartile businesses in regard to employee experience significantly outperform bottom quartile businesses (those offering a poor employee experience and ostensibly led by a bad boss). By the numbers, top quartile businesses deliver 53 percent higher revenue and 44 percent higher earnings than their bottom quartile counterparts. So, keeping bad bosses thinking they are good for business is actually a really bad idea. I cannot stress enough how important and timely it is for those responsible for making the decision to move on these bad bosses to begin finding the courage to do so. Not only will you start stemming the loss of good people, which has exceeded 4 million for five straight months, but you'll add to the numerical performance of your business and avoid the inevitable grassroots action that's coming next.
Salesforce founder and co-CEO, Marc Benioff was recently quoted as saying, "We have a lot of examples in Silicon Valley, where CEOs were 'fired' by their employees because they did not listen." Small and medium enterprises that have left horrible bosses in place for far too long now have a decision to make: do the right thing now or risk being called out by an activist mob. Employees are increasingly losing their patience with boards and senior HR leaders who fail to act on these bad bosses. More and more, they are speaking out against these tormentors in the same way they spoke out against sexual harassers of both genders. They are tired of being treated poorly or being the ones to have to uproot their lives when things become unbearable. They want to stop leaving; they want their companies to start doing the right thing.
It's not only about better leadership, it's about time.