Horrible managers need to be eliminated at HK workplaces to enhance employee innovation

Bad bosses often combine ineffective and sometimes harmful leadership practises that create problems for colleagues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 10:16pm

It is a story we are far too familiar with in Hong Kong business. The manager who does little work, plays colleagues off against one another, shirks responsibilities and then simply disappears for long periods for an “off-site meeting”.

When threatened, they swing into action, undermining competent colleagues who might expose their defects and ensuring the ideas of these staff are quashed. On a really bad day, those ideas might even be passed off as their own.

Many of us have worked with a manager who has been ruthless, manipulative and prepared to step on lesser workers to give themselves a boost. These bad bosses combine ineffective and sometimes harmful leadership practises with negative personality characteristics to create a nightmare for their colleagues.

These traits seem to be more common in smaller businesses, where the manager is also the boss, and quite often an entrepreneur who has built the company from the ground up.

A new study at the UNSW Business School now suggest that there is a correlation between psychopathic and entrepreneurial tendencies. We have discovered that participants with personalities high in either psychopathic tendencies or entrepreneurial intentions persisted in a risk-taking task even in the face of repeated and strong adversity.

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Such fearlessness motivates these entrepreneurs to succeed, but also has a downside.

Psychopaths commit an offence, go to prison, then come out and commit the offence again, because they fail to learn from the prison experience. Participants high in entrepreneurial intentions also show the same pattern of results.

This can be a trait with a distinct upside for an entrepreneur, where persistence in the face of failure means they will not be put off by ventures that fail, ultimately finding a “golden nugget” that works.

Now, a certain degree of persistence in adversity can have a huge advantage for a chief executive. Sometimes market conditions change quickly. Entrepreneurs who continue risk-taking benefit from these market changes much more quickly. For some, the risk-taking may succeed, with very high returns because others have withdrawn from the marketplace. Quite simply – they are ready to take advantage when the market turns good again. However higher risk-taking can also increase losses – and that can be why so many entrepreneurs end up with a series of bankrupt ventures.

However, as a people manager, these type of traits can be a disaster.

Some “horrible bosses” may trip themselves up and get caught stealing or bullying. But most are clever when it comes to hiding their dark side from those who matter, such as chief executives.

Why do such people survive and often thrive in the workplace? Our research shows they can be expert manipulators and may also have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

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An NPD is a repeated pattern of behaviour characterised by arrogance, excessive need for admiration, inflated views of oneself not based on reality, exploitation of others and a strong sense of entitlement. A manager with an NPD may cultivate passive and unquestioning followers, associate with those they believe are useful, and attack or undermine anyone they see as a threat.

ASPD is often referred to as “psychopathy”, and a boss with an ASPD can be even more damaging.

They may continually disregard and violate the rights of others, and lie, cheat and steal, often without remorse. These bosses often enjoy sacking people, sexually harass colleagues and feel no guilt about lying, manipulation or breaking the law. They rarely admit mistakes and often cover up things or blame others for their errors.

Ultimately, people with an NPD or an ASPD are unlikely to change and often don’t want to. They think their actions are justified and often feel no guilt. They are literally prepared to do whatever it takes. The upshot? If you’re working with someone who appears to consistently behave in ways that are characteristic of an NPD or an ASPD, you should consider finding another job.

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However, if you employ someone with these characteristics, you may not even know it. After all, why would you question a direct report’s management style when everything seems to be running fine.

You are making a profit, they get reports to you on time, and come up with some great ideas. The only issue is they seem to be permanently recruiting.

However, a higher than usual staff turnover should be the first warning sign. Junior employees who don’t stick around mean something is wrong.

So, if you have middle managers reporting to you, also speak to their staff, and speak casually to them about how their job is going. If they are consistently in fear of their manager, ask more pertinent questions, and sit in on some mundane “factory floor” meetings.

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If you find your middle managers perfect the art of looking busy while doing nothing, have the gift of the gab but no substance, and take credit for the good work of others while criticising anyone they believe poses a threat, you know it is time to take action.

However, remember, if you have a middle manager who acts like this they could also be good entrepreneurs, and in a way good for your company, too. You just need to keep them away from other employees. If they are really good, maybe let them work on their own on a new project.

While psychopaths are perceived as scary and a menace to society due to their fearlessness and insensitivity to punishment, these same characteristics in entrepreneurs mean that they can persist in risk-taking, and succeed in business.

Our study also suggests that organisations should be careful who they promote to chief executive level. While risk-taking during punishing circumstances can be advantageous, in many cases it can be a problem. It is important that the chief executive is supported by more inhibited staff members to ensure appropriate risk-taking within a company.

And if you recognise some of these traits in yourself, think about how you are treating your staff, and your level of staff turnover. Just asking for some real feedback from your workers on how you treat them could be very insightful.

Benjamin Walker is a postdoctoral research fellow in the school of management at UNSW Australia Business School. Julian Lorkin also contributed to this article