Thursday, June 24, 2004

Disengaged workers and bullying bosses 

Surveys, particularly those done by Gallup, have shown Singaporean workers to be a particularly disengaged lot. According to these surveys, the root of employee disengagement is poor management. In last year's survey, Gallup estimated that the lower productivity of actively disengaged workers penalises Singapore’s economic performance, costing between $4.9 and $6.7 billion annually.

An article from The New York Times, however, offers a different view. The article, titled “Fear in the Workplace: The Bullying Boss”, specifically looks at bullying of workers by bosses and concludes that on the whole, such poor management behaviour does not have a significantly adverse impact on worker productivity. The pertinent paragraphs from the article are as follows:

The mystifying thing about this pattern is that it does not appear to undercut productivity. Workers may loathe a bullying boss and hate going to work each morning, but they still perform. Researchers find little relationship between people's attitudes toward their jobs and their productivity, as measured by the output and even the quality of their work. Even in the most hostile work environment, conscientious people keep doing the work they are paid for.

At the same time, some employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers, helping co-workers with problems or speaking well of the company. Yet this falloff in helpfulness and, indirectly, in performance is smaller than might be expected, because fear motivates different people differently, said Dr. Bennett Tepper, an organizational psychologist at the business school of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

In April, he reported the results from a study of 173 randomly chosen employees in a wide range of work. He found that in situations where bosses were abusive, some employees did little or nothing extra, while others did a lot, partly covering for less helpful peers.

“This is not what we expected,” Dr. Tepper said. “And we speculate that one reason people keep doing extra in these abusive situations is to advance themselves at the expense of others. It makes them look good and the others look that much worse.”

This article dealt primarily with bullying by bosses. As to why bosses bully their workers, the article cited Dr. Harvey A. Hornstein, a retired professor from Teachers College at Columbia University and the author of “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey” in concluding that most often, “managers bullied subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power”.

Such leaders are extensively discussed in the article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons” by Michael Maccoby. Published in the Harvard Business Review in January 2004, this article won a McKinsey Award, which is normally given to works that are deemed to be likely to have a major influence on the actions of business managers worldwide.

The article focuses on the personality type that Sigmund Freud dubbed narcissistic. It is one of three personality types identified by Freud, the other two being erotic and obsessive. The article describes narcissists thus:

Narcissists, the third type, are independent and not easily impressed. They are innovators, driven in business to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their industries, but they go beyond it. They also pose the critical questions. They want to learn everything about everything that affects the company and its products. Unlike erotics, they want to be admired, not loved. And unlike obsessives, they are not troubled by a punishing superego, so they are able to aggressively pursue their goals. Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. And because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies, sometimes degenerating into paranoia when they are under extreme stress.

The article also mentions that narcissists lack empathy. Combined with their “superego” and “aggressiveness”, it is no wonder then that they become bullies when given power.


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