Are you someone’s bad boss?
Leadership coach Blaire Palmer reflects on the most common mistakes accountants make when managing their teams.
No one thinks they are someone’s bad boss. Yet, 55% of chartered accountants consider their workplace to be toxic.
It’s often said that the number one reason people leave their job is their manager, and research into the accounting industry may tell us why. Low-energy bosses who are slow at making decisions, aren’t interested in change or provide little leadership are cited as some of the reasons why 40% of accountants feel stuck in a rut.
When we read numbers like this, we tend to ask ourselves if they apply to us. But instead, we should be asking “Why are my people feeling like this? And am I the cause?”
Trying to do the right thing
In my 20 years of coaching senior leaders, I have very rarely met individuals who are intentionally negligent or dismissive of their people. There was one occasion where a board member referred to the employees as ‘cannon fodder’ but I remember it because it was unusual for someone to be so disparaging of their staff.
Most managers are doing what they think their people need them to do – they just aren’t aware of how this is perceived or misunderstood. The intention is positive but the perception is negative.
Hands-off management style
When you trust people you tend to let them get on with it. Highly motivated and highly skilled, responsible people don’t need your attention to do a good job, so many managers will adopt a hands-off style and focus instead on those people who require more attention.
While empowerment is desirable, some staff in your firm may feel that you don’t care about them, that they are unsupported and that they have no one to help them grow and develop when you adopt this approach with them.
Your very best people can become disillusioned and overwhelmed, finding more and more responsibility put on their shoulders and less and less contact with you. You think you’re empowering them but they feel neglected and taken for granted.
Hands-on management style
Equally, you may want to demonstrate that you’re not too busy or important to be helpful. You have many years of experience and want them to succeed so you check their work and look over their shoulder to show that you are committed to them and haven’t abandoned them for your more glamorous senior management responsibilities.
But they feel like you don’t trust them. Updating you on their progress and having you double-check their work wastes time and stops them growing in to responsible adult members of the firm. They start to switch off because they know you’ll catch mistakes anyway.
Trying to protect people
Most managers want to protect their people. They want to protect them from information that might unsettle them or complicate things. They would rather wait and give the full picture when they have all the information to prevent people from panicking unnecessarily.
They are aware that workloads are ever-increasing and don’t want to dump too much on their people, so they do more themselves. They feel it is unfair to pass everything on and, as they are earning the big bucks, they should be the ones to work late, work weekends, be on call in the holidays. Besides, they know they can handle it, but perhaps their people can’t.
The problem with this altruism is that people can feel they aren’t being told the whole story so they fill in the vacuum with speculation, often much worse than the truth. And when they see their boss working extreme hours, sending emails at 11pm and taking calls on vacation they assume this is expected of them too.
Plus, their boss clearly doesn’t trust them. She takes all the best and toughest cases herself and they are left doing menial work.
Can you see how behaviour you would think was kind and considerate can be mistaken as greediness and distrust?
We’re all in this together
With the constant pace of never-ending change, employees are on a rollercoaster most of the time. They are no longer excited about change. They have change fatigue. Another tech initiative? Wake me up when it’s over. Another team-building event? I think I’m washing my hair that day. Another wellness programme? I’m taking a duvet day instead.
To combat this fatigue leaders try to get down with the people. They talk about how tough they are finding change too. They open up about their family responsibilities and how challenging it is to balance everything. They share stories of the lessons their recent triathlon taught them about resilience and change.
And they say “We’re all in this together”. The intention is to form a common bond, to say “This is hard for us too. We get it. We’re like you”. Except I’m sorry to say – it isn’t the same for you.
For one reason, change is like a train going through a tunnel. Those at the front of the train are coming out into the light when those further back are still in the dark.
As a more senior partner, you get the information first. You have a hand in deciding the strategy. You’re at the front of the train. But lower down the firm, people are just hearing about this, they are just trying to come to terms with it and they haven’t been influential in the strategy. Whatever is happening is just being done to them, by you.
In addition, as a senior, more established person with more money in the bank and more years under your belt you simply aren’t as vulnerable as them. If you lost your job you could survive for a while but some of your staff are living paycheck to paycheck. If you lost your job you’d be in demand by other firms, but some of your people would really struggle.
It’s not that change isn’t tough for everyone, but you’re certainly not all in it together and implying that you are sends a message to your employees that you have not put yourself in their shoes.
The next article in this series will focus on how to be a better boss and the actions you can take to improve your people management.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...