Leadership matters a lot in the tone and harmony of any workplace. Supervisors and managers influence people’s motivation to work, their relationship with their colleagues, and their overall sense of well-being. So, a bad boss can grind productivity to a halt and—especially in the age of the Great Resignation—lead employees out the door.
Here are a few ways that bosses can create a toxic work culture. It is worth knowing about these situations, both to recognize when they’re happening to you and also to avoid these behaviors when you are supervising others:
Taking credit, spreading blame
In order to get noticed early in your career, you have to call attention to yourself and let other people know the positive things that you have done. Once you’ve gotten a promotion to supervise other people, though, the calculus changes. As a leader, you are going to get more credit for the success of your team than you deserve, because you are the most visible member of that team. As a result, it is critical to start doling out credit to everyone who has helped with the success of a project. Make sure that everyone who played a role is thanked.
Conversely, when things go wrong, it’s also important for leaders to shoulder the blame. Even if a team member slipped up, it was the leader’s role to ensure that everyone was prepared, to check on the status of the project, and to deal with missteps. So, leaders should also shield from blame those they supervise for the things that go wrong in the group.
Unfortunately, two kinds of leaders do not follow this advice. Inexperienced leaders are often reluctant to share credit for successes and take the blame for errors. Worse yet, narcissistic bosses almost never share credit or take blame. These kinds of supervisors leave disgruntled and unmotivated teams in their wake. When someone works hard on a project only to see someone else get all the credit, they have little incentive to push hard to get the next project completed. And when they receive blame for the failure of a group effort, it further saps their desire to work hard.
Brains are prediction engines. A lot of the things that you learn are useful because they help you to know what is going to happen next. The environments that create the most anxiety are the ones that are uncertain. When you don’t know what to expect next, you have to be vigilant because something bad might be out there on the horizon.
Good bosses make the landscape more predictable for their team. They communicate expectations clearly and reward people who meet or exceed those expectations. They avoid capricious changes in mission. They communicate about staffing changes as quickly as possible. They provide as much information as they can in unstable times—like during the pandemic. They even admit when they themselves don’t know exactly what is coming next.
It’s easy for bosses to fail to provide this kind of stable environment. Many bosses feel like knowledge is power, and so information is given only on a need-to-know basis. They move the goalposts on a whim or get attracted to some new project and change people’s focus without consulting them. They hide information about people who might get fired, which leads people to be worried about the stability of their jobs.
This kind of uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety for a team. Anxiety is an emotion that reflects there is some potential calamity that people want to avoid. An anxious team will often deal with that anxiety by avoiding work altogether or by focusing on little tasks that don’t amount to much.
Humans are social creatures. We succeed because of our remarkable ability to cooperate with others. In order to cooperate, though, you have to believe that other people will reward the effort you put in on their behalf by doing their part to ensure that joint projects succeed.
That is, cooperation requires a lot of trust. If you share critical information with a colleague in order to get help with a project, that colleague could take the information and advance their own career, leaving you behind. If you put in effort that is not reciprocated, then you will have wasted a lot of time, which could have been spent on other goals.
In workplaces where people don’t cooperate, things fall apart quickly. Colleagues don’t share information, so projects bog down because people don’t know everything they need to know in order to succeed. Coworkers don’t help each other, so projects take longer because they don’t have the people with the right expertise working on each stage. And if colleagues start taking credit for work that other people helped with, then it also creates a lot of interpersonal tension.
Bad bosses can create this environment of mistrust by setting up a structure in which everyone on a team feels like they are competing with each other, rather than working together to complete projects. They foster an environment of mistrust by playing favorites with members of their team, which can result in people competing for the boss’s attention. A bad boss can also undermine a sense of team by rewarding individuals who look out for themselves rather than being collaborative.
Using more sticks than carrots
Negative interactions stick in the mind. A single time someone gets mad at you affects your mood far more than a single instance of praise. Although anger and punishments have a negative long-term impact on the workplace, they are often effective in the moment. You can immediately get someone to do what you want by threatening them. You can create a lot of energy by yelling at someone for a mistake.
So, it’s easy to see how a boss can feel rewarded for using punishments and the threat of punishments to keep people motivated.
Unfortunately, disciplinary actions, yelling, or just harsh criticism ultimately whittles away at people’s joy of coming to work. They start looking for reasons to avoid seeing their boss and to avoid engaging with work.
Instead, good bosses need to find ways to reward their team members for good work. Praise projects that have gone well. Notice improvements in performance. Create new opportunities for people who have shown initiative.
When someone does something wrong, thank them for bringing mistakes to your attention. Focus your criticisms on the actions rather than on the motives of the person. Create an environment in which mistakes are opportunities to learn from, rather than reasons for punishment.
That is not to say that there should never be negative consequences. But punishment should be reserved for negligence rather than mistakes. When someone repeatedly makes the same mistake, fails to come forward as soon as they recognize a mistake, or deliberately sabotages a project, that is cause for punishment. Routine mistakes—even ones that have big consequences—are just teaching opportunities. And if you fire someone for making an error, you’ve probably just gotten rid of the one person who is never likely to make that mistake again.