I got a note from my book publicist, the relentless and civilized Mark Fortier, about an interesting new study. Here is what the inquiry said: “A new survey by Adecco (http://bit.ly/9jvwdW) finds that more than three-quarters of bosses say their relationships with workers has improved in the past three years because of the recession.” When I clicked on the link, I saw that, indeed, the survey of 1000 employees and bosses found “78 percent of bosses say they feel closer to their teams than they did three years ago (pre-recession) and 61 percent of employees agree.” I would take this survey with a grain of salt, as it does not appear to use a representative sample, but it is interesting when taken together with other recent research (using better samples) that show about 80% of U.S. employees report feeling respected and supported by their bosses and the 2010 WBI/Zogby survey that shows the percentage of U.S. employees who report being bullied at work has dropped from about 13% to 9% since their 2010 survey.
Mark asked what might explain these findings, why despite all the fear, layoffs, and extra hours worked, bosses and employees might be feeling better about each other than before the meltdown, and might even be treating each other better too! Several reasons occurred to me, and I would love to know other reasons that might occur to you:
1. Fewer rotten bosses. The downsizing and such that so many firms have gone through during the last three years mean that bad bosses of all kinds have been weeded-out, or put on notice that if they don’t improve, they will be shown the door. So incompetent bosses of all kinds have been shown the door, which includes those who are not respected by their followers and who treat their followers like dirt. Certainly, plenty of civilized and competent bosses have been shown the door during the downturn, but perhaps organizations have used it to get rid of the rotten apples–and as I discuss in Good Boss Bad Boss and here at HBR, rotten apples do massive damage.
2. The civility movement. During the last few years, perhaps the tolerance for nasty and disrespectful bosses has decreased. I see the popularity of The Power of Nice, The Civility Solution, and The No Asshole Rule as symptoms of this movement, as it would delusional to view a few books as a cause. Perhaps the weight of one press report after another on bullying and lousy bosses helped with the cause. And perhaps the lawyers have played a role as there are more cases of bully bosses–even equal opportunity bossholes–getting sued and paying big sums. So between the “opportunity” to get rid of nasty bosses with the downturn, the increasing society pressure to not tolerate such behavior, and the realization by more bosses that being a good boss entails treating people with respect, a bit of change has occurred in the composition and behavior of the workforce.
3. Thinking about money less. Another explanation, which I heard from a CEO of a company that has gone through numerous rounds of layoffs, is interesting. When his company was growing like crazy and competitors were as well there was a sense on strong competition in his firm as people believed that they had to battle to “get mine.” And indeed, this is consistent with research that shows, when the focus in life is on money, people become more selfish and see others as “the enemy.”
4. Compassion and mutual support. The multiple rounds of layoffs that occurred in some companies appears to have encouraged some bosses and “surviving” employees to their attention turn attention to the “humanity” part of the job, to giving people support who have lost jobs and–among survivors–to bond together to get through the stressful times. An inspiring example from Intel ends Good Boss, Bad Boss:
Intel executive Patricia (Pat) McDonald demonstrated similar awareness in 2006 when managing a factory in Hillsboro, Oregon. As part of a company-wide reduction, several managers at the plant lost jobs. An engineer who worked for Pat, Sumit Guha, told me how “she recounted the contributions of these employees in an open forum, wishing them luck, acknowledging that these employees were being let go for no fault of their own, and we all gave these employees a hand in appreciation of their contributions.” Things got worse in early 2009 when Intel announced the factory would cease production at year’s end because it was using older technology–and approximately 1000 workers would lose their positions. Pat not only expressed concern and compassion, she took a stance demonstrating that she had her employees’ backs. Pat quickly announced to her team that although output metrics would continue to be important, helping people get through the transition was a higher priority–especially finding affected employees new jobs inside and outside of Intel. Pat and her team not only provided extensive outplacement counseling and related services, they personally visited numerous local employers to campaign for new jobs for their people. Managers and employees emulated this behavior. For example, employees shared job search leads and helped each other prepare for interviews, even as they were vying for the same positions.
Sumit emphasized that Pat’s dogged efforts to “earn trust and respect from a process of engagement” and her ability to understand “the implications of decisions from the employees’ point of view and adjust her course of action accordingly” were what separated her from ordinary bosses. This “deep sense of benevolent care” was especially constructive after the end of production was announced because, “At a time when the economy was collapsing, her actions helped maintain a sense of calm amongst us.” Pat’s emphasis on people and connection with them not only instilled calm, her priorities helped many find good new jobs. And plant performance didn’t suffer a bit; productivity, efficiency, and quality reached record levels in 2009.
Pat’s people admired her because she was in tune with what it felt like to be them and she focused on how the things she said and did shaped their moods, efforts, and loyalty–whether they lost jobs or remained at Intel.
5. Lowered expectations. Finally, if I put on my psychologist hat, I could make a more cynical argument–that even if nothing objective changed between bosses and their charges, people would report being more satisfied. The average employee has fewer choices of bosses and jobs than before the bust. So if they believe their boss is bad, but can’t exit, it leads to constant unhappiness. To avoid unhappiness, reality aside, people with good mental health will simply adjust their attitudes and beliefs such that they see the same old boss as okay. This is sort of like “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with.” To put it another way, research on happiness shows that it is not so much driven by how objectively wonderful everything is, but rather by the difference between what you have and what you expect. So the lowering of expectations that comes with a downturn may lead people to appreciate what they have more–so the same old thing, the boss in this case (or the boss’s opinion of his her team) may seem better than in the past.
I offer these five explanations as hypotheses. I am not really sure why people report liking their bosses more and bosses report liking their teams more, it is an intriguing question.
Reprinted from Work Matters
Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.