04 August 2007

When Two Out of Three Is Bad

Two out of three can be a good thing. Maybe it's the basis of the recommendation for the toothpaste you're using. Or perhaps you won a prize for having the best outcome in two out of three tries. In the workplace, however, these odds might not be all that desirable. A study being presented at the Academy of Management meetings next week will claim that nearly two out of three workers have had experiences where bad bosses were either never penalized or they were rewarded. (Nearly all of the article has been reprinted below.)

How do people get ahead in the workplace? One way seems to be by making their subordinates miserable, according to a study released on Friday.

In the study to be presented at a conference on management this weekend, almost two-thirds of the 240 participants in an online survey said the local workplace tyrant was either never censured or was promoted for domineering ways.

"The fact that 64.2 percent of the respondents indicated that either nothing at all or something positive happened to the bad leader is rather remarkable -- remarkably disturbing," wrote the study's authors, Anthony Don Erickson, Ben Shaw and Zha Agabe of Bond University in Australia.

Despite their success in the office, spiteful supervisors can cause serious malaise for their subordinates, the study suggested, citing nightmares, insomnia, depression and exhaustion as symptoms of serving a brutal boss.

The authors advocated immediate intervention by industry chiefs to stop fledgling office authoritarians from rising up the ranks.

"As with any sort of cancer, the best alternative to prevention is early detection," they wrote.

They faulted senior managers for not recognizing the signs of workplace strife wrought by bad bosses. "The leaders above them who did nothing, who rewarded and promoted bad leaders ... represent an additional problem."

Would this hold true for educational leadership, too, I wonder? While I can claim to have seen some incompetent choices over the years, l'enfant terrible as boss has (thankfully) been a very rare occurrence. I suppose that still puts me in the majority, however, which is really rather sad. It would be interesting to learn about the qualities people had in mind when they thought of a "bad boss." The adjectives used in the article (tyrannical, brutal, spiteful) conjure up the vision of someone who is cruel, rather than simply inadequate. It seems like there needs to be some serious changes in the culture of the workplace and the values we place upon selecting leadership in order to prevent more bullies from getting to the top.


Dr Pezz said...

In my nine years at my current high school, we're on our fourth principal with the least competent being the current one. Word on the street is that she will be promoted to the district office in order to give us a new principal next year and so the DO doesn't have to actually fire her.

Pardon the expression (and I'll be gentle) but sometimes excrement does float to the top.

The Science Goddess said...

Four principals in nine years is quite the track record. And here I thought that the saying was that "S--t rolls downhill."

We have had our share of similar happenings in this district, although not recently; but there are definitely tales of admins moved to the Head Shed with the goal of making them less dangerous. You'd think that their contracts would just not be renewed, but I suppose making them miserable is part of what the bullies above them enjoy.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

SG, I'm sad to say that educational leadership is not a category that's immune to the laws of probability.

Outside of the classroom (and standards-based grades), the normal curve rules. If I remember my statistics right, the mediocre middle (C) of administrators makes up 67% of the population, the rotten and okay (D and B) account for, what, another 14% each, and the truly demonic and saintly (F and A),at 2.5% each, don't account for much.

So, in my world view, you have about an 83.5% chance of getting an ineffective (and possibly, destructive) administrator at any given level. (I'm not sure what the algorithm would be if we tried to analyze the numbers on the way up the ladder, but I think the curve holds up for almost every population.)

Can you see why I'm so enthusiastic with our "new" (three years) supe? I'd bronze the guy if he could remain functional in that condition.

My other stat rule is the Pareto Principal, also known as the 80/20 rule. 20% of the administrators accomplish 80% of the good things in a district. The other 80% do 20% of the good things. :(

And 20% of the teachers get 80% of the good results with students.

The odds are not good any way you look at it. And that's one reason I encourage good leaders always, and always stay alert for newbies with potential. Our in-house leadership program has produced some very good results -- two new elementary principals this year.

Our personnel director was one of our most outstanding principals and he knows what to look for in new teacher hires.

We're a large organization for a wild west district, and the normal curve has applied here in the past. But we're working toward the big skew to the right!