The Six Toxic Beliefs That Lousy Bosses Love

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Why are there so many lousy bosses in this world? Simple. 

These six toxic beliefs have taken hold in the business world, and they’re turning otherwise sane individuals into raging management jackasses.

This post describes those 6 toxic beliefs so that you can protect yourself against them, primarily by avoiding those managers who hold them dear.

Be forewarned, though.  If some of these beliefs make sense to you, you might very well be on the road to becoming a lousy boss yourself.

#1: “We are a meritocracy.”

You hear this all the time inside high tech firms, and it’s becoming increasingly common elsewhere, too.  The idea is that management only awards promotions and salary increases as the result of proven performance.  That’s the theory.  But it’s total BS.

The idea of a “meritocracy” ignores that many other factors influence who gets what inside a corporation.  For example, tall men and pretty women have an inside track that’s purely genetic and has nothing whatsoever to do with their actual contributions.

Similarly, many employees enter a company with pre-existing connections, both through colleagues and family members. To draw an example from politics, does anyone of any political persuasion believe that George W. Bush would have become President had he come from an unknown family?

The same sort of thing happens in many, many firms.  An executive comes in at the top and pulls a bunch of his cronies in with him.  Somebody has an affair with the CFO and then becomes the chief auditor.  (This actually happened to somebody I know).  Deals are cut between drinking buddies.  Talent has little or nothing to do with it.

Beyond that, the corporate world is full of toadies and lickspittles whose sole ability to survive and thrive is based upon an unerring sense of who in the corporate structure needs periodic sphincter osculations.

Even if those factors were absent from the corporate milieu (which they’re decidedly not), the Peter Principle still remains valid.  As anyone who looks at any business carefully can tell you, people are FREQUENTLY promoted to their level of incompetence, where they remain for years.

The reason that this belief is so toxic?  People who are lucky, connected, or oily use the “meritocracy” belief to justify the fact that they’ve gotten ahead.  It makes them feel that they “deserve” their success, and therefore owe nothing to anybody else.

Back in the day when belonging to an aristocracy meant automatic advantages, they had a concept called noblesse oblige.  Aristocrats knew that they didn’t really deserve their privileges, so they felt obligated to treat the hoi polloi with a modicum of kindness and restraint.

Not so the meritocrats.  Once they get ahead, they rapidly become insufferable snobs who complain about government regulation and quote Ayn Rand.

How vomitable.

#2: “I must control employees.”

The idea that the role of management is to control employee behaviour is common, but that doesn’t make it right.

We’ve been told for so many years that managers are supposed to be “in charge” that any other definition of management seems absurd or naive. All too often, well-meaning managers try to control their way out of problems, control the behaviour of the people who work with them, control events that are going to happen whether they like it or not.

But thinking of management as control misses the entire point (and real power) of management. Ideally, a manager should be a servant, coach and mentor to the people who work inside the group. The goal of the manager is to make everyone else in the group successful, and thereby make the group success. You can’t “control” that outcome. It’s just not possible

The reason this belief is ugly that it leads organisation to concentrate power at the top. It causes the proliferation of complicated rules and regulations, the growth of bureaucracies, and the need for expensive reporting mechanisms to pass information up and down the management chain.

Even so, the need to control can be very seductive. The illusion that we can bend other people’s hearts and minds and get them to do exactly what we want is a comforting one in a world that’s admittedly chaotic. What’s most dangerous about “control” is that it works-at least for a while, but it eventually creates massive resentment.

The controlling person looks around the conference table one day and finds that he or she is surrounded by enemies-people who would stab the controlling manager in the back, if given half a chance. So the manager comes up with some new way to control or manipulate, while the employees continue to manoeuvre and posture to avoid the heavy hand of management.

And so the cycle continues.

#3: “Our company is like a machine.”

Listen to the way executives talk and business authors write about corporations. A successful corporation is often said to be a “well-run” or even a “well-oiled machine”; it also is said to be a “good system,” one that is “efficient” and “well-designed.” When you hear these descriptions or hundreds of others like them, you’re hearing the belief that employees should be cogs in the corporate machine.

But hold your horses, Hester!  Machines are, by nature, rigid and stable. Machines never grow; they never change on their own.  They only break, because machines are, by definition, comparatively brittle.  And isn’t a corporation actually a collection of human beings?  Organic creatures who adapt and change with relative ease?

The machine analogy creates other absurdities as well. For instance, machines need to be “run.” Therefore, the whole corporate machine mindset encourages top managers to visualise themselves in the control room of a big machine.  This is supposed to make them feel that they’re in control, but ironically it can create a sense of helpless.  A CEO of Xerox once confessed to a friend of mine:

I feel like the captain of an aircraft carrier. I turn the wheel and try to point the ship in a new direction, but I have no idea whether or not my orders are being followed.

Why is this belief so toxic?  It dehumanizes people. If you think that the everybody is just cog, nobody is essential; anybody can be replaced. What’s important is the machine and (by extension) the people who are running the machine.

That, in turn, creates wretched work environment that cannot and will not reward creative thinking or recognise the value of intellectual differences.  People who feel they’re just part of a machine aren’t going to go out of their way to help an organisation achieve its goals. In the worst case, they might be tempted to exact some kind of revenge on the company that’s treating its employees like subhumans.

When managers treat employees like cogs, work slows to a crawl. People do the minimum, just enough to keep from getting fired.  Then some idiot manager gets the bright idea to “reengineer” the machine, thus creating even more misery and even more lousy management.

Resistance is futile.

#4: Business is warfare.”

I’ve written about this one concept in “The 5 Dumbest Management Concepts of All Time.”  However, this sickening schtick is so common among lousy managers, that I’m going to summarize it here as well.

Many traditional business leaders have a militaristic view of the way the business world works. A glance at the titles of popular business books-Marketing Warfare, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Guerrilla PR-offer ample testimony for this widely held viewpoint. We’re told that we must imitate generals and warlords if we want to be successful managers.

Here’s the problem. If a company’s executives really believe that business is warfare, then that dogma will be reflected in nearly everything that goes on inside the corporation. Strategies that don’t fit the dogma-regardless of their potential for success-will be rejected because they are literally “unthinkable.”

For example, executives who believe that business is a battlefield will almost inevitably assume that victory in business goes to the largest “army” and they’ll build large, complicated departments stuffed full of people and resources. Even when customers would be better served by a smaller, more focused effort, there will be an overwhelming drive to build a massive corporate “army” that’s “strong” and ready to “fight.”

Military-minded managers also find it all too easy to become control freaks. Because they see themselves as generals and officers, they tell people what to do. They think that good employees should shut up and follow orders. This behaviour destroys initiative as people wait around for top management to make decisions.

And because top management is often the most isolated from the customer, the company loses track of what’s needed in the marketplace. Further, the “business warfare” mentality makes it impossible to put the decision making where it belongs-at the lowest level of the organisation.

Military thinking also distances employees from their customers. To the militaristic company, customers are, at best, faceless territory to be “targeted” and “captured” with marketing and sales “campaigns.” This strategy discourages the viewing of customers as living, breathing human beings with opinions, interests, and concerns of their own.

What’s more, the entire “business warfare’ concept, with its buddy-buddy, band-of-brothers, shoot-’em-up consciousness seems ludicrous to many women. Not having spent their childhood playing soldiers in the sandbox, many women find it pretty ridiculous that a bunch of grown men can act as if their boring meetings and dry-as-dust ideas were high adventure and global conflict.

When my late mother was a sales rep at Bristol Myers, she had a sales manager who actually said to his reps, half of whom were middle-aged women: “So now get out there and rape and pillage and leave no wounded.”

She was not amused.

#5: “Employees are like children.”

Lousy managers love complicated rules, procedures, and guidelines that govern nearly every aspect of working life. These rules suggest to employees that they are not trustworthy, lack common sense, and have even less capacity for making important decisions. Employees who “break the rules” or “misbehave” are disciplined… like disobedient children.

It isn’t just manual laborers who are treated this way. White collar employees, too, in many companies are suspected of stealing office supplies, so management locks the supply cabinets, forcing employees to fill out a form to get a pen or printer cartridge.

The absence of trust is implicit. And locking up office supplies forces people to spend valuable work time just accessing the tools they need to do their jobs. This is seen as necessary, however, otherwise employees (children) will be dipping into the corporate cookie jar.

I know two Fortune 100 companies whose top management issued company-wide emails complaining about the overuse of paper clips! Try to imagine, in the real world, a conversation between two adults where one suggests that the other should use fewer paper clips. This is pettiness taken to an insane extreme.

This infantilization of the workforce quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you treat people like children, they act like children. Disgruntled from the absence of trust and disgusted with management’s patronizing attitude, employees unintentionally become participants in a corporate culture where it’s tempting to waste money, waste time, or even steal company property.

Soon, not only is management treating employees like children, but the employees are acting like children. Managers and employees become trapped in a dysfunctional relationship that, weirdly, starts to resemble a family — a family that badly needs an intervention and years of therapy to become functional again.

Waste of energy!

#6: “Fear is an effective motivator.”

Many managers hold the threat of firing or demotion over employees’ heads. The message is clear: “Work hard or you’re outta here!” and recent changes in the economy have made that threat all the more cogent.  In the United States alone, tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs as a result of an economic downturn. This resurgence of insecurity in the workplace has reawakened the fear of joblessness in many workers in all fields.

The problem with fear as motivator is that it makes companies less competitive and less adaptable, because it causes workers to become less, rather than more, productive. People become paralysed and won’t take any action whatsoever lest they be blamed if it goes awry. Or worse, they act out of panic, making things worse.

organisations where fear rules are truly miserable places.  Managers start demanding detailed plans for everything in a vain attempt to guarantee that nothing goes wrong. Decision making to a crawl while everyone seeks to cover his or her behind. Distrust leads to bureaucracies that insist on checking every last detail. Tasks that, in a reasonable organisation, could be handled in a few hours, in such an organisation might take days, weeks, or months, or never be completed.

Fear also degrades the quality of communications inside an organisation. In an effort to deflect potential blame, employees engage in double-talk and “weasel words.” Whenever you see a memorandum that’s a soup of industry buzzwords and half-truths, carefully crafted to spread blame and communicate next to nothing, you can bet that there’s a terrified executive or two cowering nearby.

The result of double-talk is that people in an organisation stop valuing truth, even if they can still recognise it. Information that is difficult for the culture to absorb gets buried and avoided. Over time, managers and employees alike lose track of what’s going on in the market because everybody’s afraid to state the facts.

Rather than increasing the level of fear in the organisation, effective managers seek to minimize it. They want employees to feel that they are in charge of their destiny-not waiting for the proverbial axe to drop. They want employees to claim ownership for their decisions, not seek to pass or share blame.

Employees who are afraid don’t make good decisions, they don’t take well-considered risks, and they don’t act rationally. Go into almost any conference room in a traditionally run company and you’ll see them. They glance around the room frequently, waiting and worrying, laughing a little too loudly when the boss cracks a feeble joke, agreeing with whatever idea seems popular or politically correct.

I once heard a VP give the following advice that to a group of line managers: “You gotta put the fear of God into them.”

What a jackass.

This post originally appeared at BNET.

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