Maybe You’re a Jerk of a Boss, and You Just Don’t Realize It

Don Tennant

A colleague of mine who spent 25 years as an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency often quotes an Agency psychologist who said that there’s only a “casual relationship” between logic and human behavior. His point was that you can’t assume people will react to something the way you think you would under the same circumstances, or the way you think logic dictates that they should.

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I was reminded of that observation when I was introduced to the work of Christine Comaford, a corporate leadership coach, human behavior expert, and author of the book, “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.” Comaford points out that leaders inadvertently do and say things that make their employees feel unappreciated, and the way the employees react has nothing to do with logic. It’s often a flight-or-flight or deer-in-the-the headlights response, or what Comaford refers to as the “Critter State.” In that state, innovation and collaboration give way to self-preservation, and that’s in the best interest of no one.

So how do you know if you’re doing or saying things that are problematic? Comaford has come up with a helpful list of six ways you may be making your employees feel that you think they don’t matter:

  • You don’t respond to their emails. Sure, you’re busy, and sure, your employees know that—but the Critter State doesn’t spring from the rational part of the brain. Instead of thinking, “Oh, the boss will get back to me when she has a moment,” they think, “She doesn’t like my idea. She doesn’t like me. I feel rejected. I don’t matter.” When an employee emails the boss, especially when that email asks for your approval or contains sensitive content, she’s putting herself out there. Always respond—even if it’s just to say, “I need a little time to think about that but I’ll get back to you in a day or two.”
  • You don’t give them feedback—positive or negative. When people matter to us, we want them to know they’ve done a good job. If they haven’t done a good job, we want them to know that too, so they can improve. To the employee’s Critter Brain, silence means we don’t care enough to let them know either way. Hopefully you’re giving feedback in performance evaluations, but give it informally as well. A simple “Good job writing that proposal” means a lot. And while it’s less fun to hear “You need to work on the close to your sales pitch,” when your employee starts getting better results, he’ll know you cared enough to speak up. It feels un-PC to make this comparison, but consider how well children respond to being consistently held accountable. Rules and boundaries make people feel loved. It’s true for employees and leaders too. In the Critter Brain, we’re all two-year-olds.
  • You acknowledge people ONLY when they make mistakes. This makes them feel like a faulty cog that must be repaired to keep the company machine running smoothly. To let them know they matter, make a positive personal connection with employees as often as possible. Be specific about what you like and let them know their unique contribution makes a real difference to the organization. Better yet, make a point of praising them publicly. Social rewards are extremely powerful—far more powerful than cash rewards, in fact.
  • You don’t celebrate victories. No, just getting paid isn’t reward enough for doing a great job. (Again, a paycheck can feel like oil for the cog—necessary, but not meaningful.) When your team has an especially significant win, make a point to order in a special lunch and celebrate the team organization-wide. Team victory celebrations foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie—which go hand-in-hand with mattering.
  • You inadvertently show favoritism. In many organizations, there are certain team members who are perceived as “above the law” or in the “in crowd.” These people tend not to be held accountable for their lack of performance, and they often get the lion’s share of raises, promotions, or perks, even if they don’t deserve them. And yes, other employees notice. People think lovability isn’t an issue in business, but I’m here to tell you it is. Feeling that others are more “loved” triggers safety, belonging, and mattering issues in those on the outside. Absolute equality may not be possible in an imperfect world, but it’s critical to aim for it.
  • You burn them out. Do your employees slog away like slaves, working long hours and completing one high-stress task after another, day after day after day? Not only will they feel that you don’t care about their well-being, they’ll burn out. Yes, from time to time we all have to exert extra effort, but no one can sustain such a pace forever. This dynamic starts when leaders “self-sacrifice.” Even if you don’t tell employees they have to work until 8 p.m. every night, they see you do it and feel that they’re expected to do so as well. This isn’t good for you or for them. Sustainability is about creating win-win agreements with ourselves and others. We all need a good blend of people, activities, and things that excite and energize us in order to balance out those (inevitable) things that drain us. If your employees matter to you, you’ll help them strike that balance.

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