When Bad Supervisors Happen to Good People: The Price of Poor Supervision

Poor supervision drives good employees away. What problems do they create and how do good intentions go wrong? Here are some examples and problems that can be avoided.

“If I could make a bar graph to chart the subjects on which I get e-mail every week, one subject would tower over the others:  managers. You have bad managers, you could do a better job than your own manager.  You are a new manager and don’t know what you’re doing. You are a new manager and just want a little respect.  You are a new manager and you miss your old non-managerial job. You wish your company offered your managers some training.  You wonder whether training would actually help. You want to go home and hide under the covers.”  [Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce, as quoted in the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report titled “First-Line Supervisors in the Federal Service…”]   (emphasis added)

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the fact that many FedSmith.com readers who have responded to my articles have expressed concern about what they see as ineffective supervisors.  In this article, I’m going to focus on what the NAPA report called “The Price of Poor Supervision” and related topics.

The NAPA report stated, albeit in language less colorful than Ms. Joyce’s, that:

“It is difficult to quantify the precise cost of supervisory deficiencies, but even a small deficiency could result in a loss of billions of dollars. Data indicate that this problem involves more than ‘a small percentage’ and real costs could be considerably larger. Without solid programs for identifying, developing, and managing first-line supervisors, agencies pay an enormous price in several ways:

Job performance suffers. As key managers where the work gets done, supervisors are critical to agency mission accomplishment.  They may be the most important factor in their individual work unit’s performance and productivity.”

I would go even further, postulating that supervisors are the most important factor in their work unit’s performance and productivity.  And that cuts both ways:  good supervisors can be the driving force behind excellent group performance and productivity; bad supervisors can have just the opposite effect.

Poor supervision drives good employees away.  Reports from OPM, MSPB, and others have noted the impact of poor supervision on moral and turnover.  Also, undesired turnover…adds recruitment and training costs.”

The idea that poor supervision drives good employees away is by no means confined to the Federal sector.  For example, a Gallup report dated April 19, 1999, found that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers and supervisors.  The impact that a supervisor has in today’s workplace can be either very valuable or very costly to the organization and the people who work there.” (emphasis added)

Tim Rutledge, Ph.D., in a May 1, 2006, article chimed in:

“It’s a well known truth that people don’t leave companies, they leave supervisors. Supervisors are the most important ingredient in the overall employment experience. Their behaviour will create either engaging or disengaging employment experiences for their staff…”

Clearly, front line supervisors are critical to their employees’ perceptions of their jobs.  And employees are highly attuned to how their supervisors use power. Organizations that want to keep their top performers will also want to assess supervisory candidates for how they’re likely to use power.  As long as such assessments are left out, the door is open for the boss from hell to waltz in.

Nearly all men can stand adversity.  If you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.‘  –Abraham Lincoln”

Dan Woolridge captured similar thoughts in “The Boss from Hell”:

“‘Rapport with the boss largely predicts risk for depression and other psychiatric problems in the workplace,’ says Brad Gilbreath of Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne.  His study, published in the journal Work and Stress and reported in Psychology Today this month, found that a worker’s relationship with the boss was almost equal to his relationship with his spouse when it comes to the impact on his well-being.  A rewarding job or even good relationships with coworkers cannot compensate (for) a negative relationship with the boss. (emphasis in original)

The Gallup surveys and Brad Gilbreath’s work confirm that the number one reason for employee turnover and, perhaps, the number one reason for lower than expected work productivity is not workers, but bosses.  It also appears that poor boss performance may affect the long term health of company employees, and that will become a financial issue.” (emphasis added)

The third and final item NAPA noted under the heading “price of poor supervision” was:

Problems that require third-party intervention increase. Supervisory behavior impacts the number of grievances and complaints filed by non-supervisory employees. The cost for resolving these issues can be very significant.”

Sometimes the number of grievances and complaints in a work unit increases because the supervisor tries to do the right thing, such as dealing with performance and conduct problems; I advise supervisors that morale usually improves when the situation has been resolved.  However, supervisors can also trigger grievances and complaints by behaving in an inappropriate manner and/or by tolerating those who do so.  I believe that, as a general rule, if morale declines in an organization productivity is likely to follow it downward, so I always tell supervisors that it is in their best interest to maintain a consistently high level of morale.

Where do some supervisors go wrong?

I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of supervisors (like non-supervisory employees) come to work each day intending to do a good job.

Sometimes, as astute FedSmith.com readers have observed, the “system” fails after the supervisor has been selected, when higher levels of management do not provide adequate training and guidance and/or fail to stand behind a supervisor who appropriately attempts to deal with problems in the workplace.

Other times, the system fails earlier – namely, in the selection process.  As noted in the earlier article, NAPA found that often the agency places more value in its crediting plan on the technical aspects of the job than on its supervisory component.  When that happens, the selection process is more likely to identify the best technical candidates than the candidates with the best experience or potential to be an effective supervisor.

What kinds of supervisory behaviors most antagonize subordinates?  According to a Baltimore Sun article from April 26, 2006:

“…the fact remains that bosses have some across-the-board behaviors that drive employees wild.  Witness a recent online survey by DDI and its partner Badbossology.com.  When asked what they’d fire their bosses for, the 1,062 respondents complained about bosses they couldn’t trust, bosses who micromanaged them, bosses who didn’t give them opportunities to grow and bosses who took credit for employees’ work and ideas.

Treating employees with little or no respect is probably the No. 1 complaint workers have about their supervisors, experts say.  Some bosses belittle employees’ ideas, refuse to delegate work, (and) rarely ask employees what they’re thinking…” (emphasis added)

Here is a little parable from Charles Hopkins’ article “New Supervisor:  Prepare for Your Changed Role,” parts of which hit uncomfortably close to home for me:

“George spent several years as an auditor in his company’s internal auditor’s office.  He was known for his expertise and dynamic character.  His supervisor and others rarely challenged his findings. He knew that his conclusions would be accepted, giving him a rather high opinion of himself as an auditor. He had all the answers.

Because of his excellent track record, he was selected to be the chief of his unit when his supervisor retired.  He felt comfortable that he could handle the job without any problems.

However, when he actually took over, he found that his people did things differently than he did.  He felt that, since they did things differently, they must be wrong.  He wasn’t willing to see other ways of doing things.  For example, he had developed a writing style that seemed to work for him.  It was flowery, using very bureaucratic language.  Consequently, he felt that the way he always wrote was the best.  And he was going to make sure that all his auditors would write the same way.  He became very demanding, correcting their audit reports and making them do them over many times before he was willing to accept them.  Plus, he treated them as if they were incompetent.

George soon found himself alienated from his employees. They avoided him as much as possible.  When they were faced with having to redo their reports, they grudgingly rewrote them with as little contact with him as possible.  Reports started coming in late. This further enraged George, which led to his calling meetings where he severely chastised his employees. It all became a vicious cycle.”

I first became a supervisor, as a section chief, at the age of 27 with only four years of experience in the Federal government, so I was selected more on potential than experience, and had a huge amount to learn.  In an office of about eight employees, two of my new subordinates contested my selection, so it was a good thing that tact and diplomacy were among my few skills.

Like “George,” I had trouble learning to delegate authority and responsibility to subordinates. I, too, was very comfortable with my writing skills and style and was convinced that my editing of draft documents improved the quality of the written products that left our office. In theory that wasn’t a bad thing, but what often happened was that I changed the drafts of my subordinates so much that they couldn’t even recognize them, which was more about my ego than about developing their skills.

I only supervised one employee at a time in each of my next two jobs, so while I’m sure I inadvertently made those two people suffer mightily, at least the harm I could do was limited by the small size of my staff.

In my next position I supervised about a half-dozen personnelists, followed by a job which required me to supervise more than twice that many and one, as Regional Director of Personnel, in which I supervised 25-30 employees through four branch chiefs.

When a reorganization eliminated our region, among others, I jumped to another agency, where I initially supervised about six classification specialists, assistants and clerks; then more than a dozen staffing and classification specialists, as well as processing assistants and administrative staff.  At the end of my career, I was back to supervising one person, which may not have been coincidental.

In the early years, most of my errors as a supervisor were made out of ignorance, which is far more excusable than the ones later in my career, when I typically knew what to do and how to do it but didn’t always have the intestinal fortitude to take prompt and effective corrective action when conduct or performance problems arose.  Another major flaw was that I did not “manage by walking about” as General Electric’s Jack Welch used to advocate. I was also inconsistent in holding staff meetings, often canceling them when another priority would pop up, and I was not nearly as good as I should have been in responding to questions/issues raised by employees.  What I learned, belatedly, is that an employee who asks a supervisor a question or raises a concern actually expects an answer, and in a timely manner at that.

In the next article, I’ll discuss not just what I learned from my own long, checkered career as a supervisor and manager, but also what knowledge I gained from my various supervisors over the years.  I will also attempt to defend my theory that one can learn just as much about effective supervision, if not more so, from a bad supervisor as from a good one.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.