EMOTIONAL HEALTH
June 14, 2016

How to Be a Bad Boss

From nurses to stone masons, workers reported what their superiors do that increases job dissatisfaction and lowers morale.

What makes work meaningful? And what makes it meaningless? British researchers who interviewed workers from 10 very different occupations in the UK got some interesting answers to these questions.

The things that make work meaningful are usually personal to different workers, but when it comes to what makes work feel meaningless, there is at least one universal answer: bad bosses. Bosses do not play a part in making work meaningful, but they can easily make it seem pointless by the way they treat their employees.

So now you know how to crush your workers' spirit. Inspiring them is much harder.

People rarely mentioned leaders or leadership when describing meaningful moments at work. But they did cite poor management as the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

Seven Things Bad Bosses Do

The seven most commonly-mentioned things that bosses do to make work seem pointless are described below, with bosses' most severe offenses listed first.

The people in the study came from ten very different professions: nurses in an acute care hospital, lawyers, entrepreneurs who had started their own business, soldiers, academics from scientific disciplines, retail assistants, priests of various denominations, artists (including musicians, writers and actors), garbage collectors and stonemasons who were working on the preservation of an ancient cathedral.

1) Ask people to ignore their values
A recurring theme was the conflict between an organization's focus on the bottom line and an individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of their work.

Nurses spoke of being forced to send patients home before they were ready to go to free up bed space. Lawyers complained of being forced to put earnings ahead of helping clients. And academics bemoaned the lack of intellectual integrity that resulted when avoiding lawsuits and maximizing profits came first.

2) Take your employees for granted
Feeling unrecognized, unacknowledged or unappreciated by management was often cited in the interviews as a major reason why people found their work pointless.

From the sales assistants and priests who received no thanks for doing extra work to the academics whose department heads ignored their research and teaching successes, lack of recognition for hard work often led to feelings that work was meaningless. There were lawyers who put in long hours but were still criticized for not getting enough work done. With some bosses, no matter how much you do, it's never enough.

3) Waste employees' time
Everyone hates bureaucracy. And giving people countless forms to fill out was an excellent path to pointlessness. But it wasn't the only path. One retail assistant spoke of having to change the shop layout one week on instructions from the head office, only to be told to change it back the very next week.

4) Treat people unfairly
Yes, fairness is often in the eyes of the beholder. But when you're told you can’t have a raise for several years because there's no money and then see a colleague given one, as happened to one stonemason, how can your work seem meaningful?

The behaviors that characterize bad bosses (or companies) can take all the meaning out of work that once seemed meaningful.

And lack of opportunities for advancement was also high on the list of things that made workers feel they — and the work they do — were not valued.

5) Override people’s better judgment
When people felt they were not being listened to or that their opinions and experience did not matter, they were more likely to find their work meaningless. This most often happened when they were given orders from above to cut corners, hurry up or do sloppy work.

6) Isolate or marginalize people
Isolation or marginalization came from many sources. Sometimes it was deliberate ostracism by the boss. Other times it came from a lack of camaraderie with co-workers. For some artists, it came from a sense that they were not connecting with their audience. Whatever the cause, it often led to profound feelings of meaninglessness.

7) Put people at unnecessary risk of physical or emotional harm
Nurses talked of feeling vulnerable when left alone with aggressive patients, while soldiers spoke of being exposed to extreme weather without the appropriate gear. Perhaps it's more important that these were dangerous experiences, but they also made workers feel their safety was not a priority, and that can bring on feelings that one's work isn't important.

The same thing goes for employers who don't take steps to stop bullying in the workplace.

Do Workers Miss the Big Picture?

So now you know how to crush your workers' spirit. Inspiring them is much harder.

Or is this more a case of managers being privy to the big picture while workers are only focused on a narrow part of it? After all, people tend to strongly overrate how much they contribute to the teams they are a part of. That may be a factor, but it does appear that the behaviors that characterize bad bosses (or companies) can take all the meaning out of work that once seemed meaningful.

The study appears in MIT Sloan Management Review.

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