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“When it’s a bad leader, people will wonder why they should spend their time at the company.” - DAVID ANG director of Human Capital Singapore

Good Boss Bad Boss

How do they lord over thee? Cheah Ui-Hoon and Avanti Nim count the ways.
12/11/2016 - 05:50

IF you've ever held a job, you would have had a boss. If you've ever had a boss, you would have come across a toxic one at some stage. It's one of those things you can't avoid – like death, wage cuts and the young hottie in your department who gets promoted over you, thanks to aforementioned toxic boss. From bosses who run you down in public, to clueless senior management who make unreasonable demands, every working person has had a horror story or two to tell. And it doesn't necessarily get better the higher up the corporate ladder you climb, either.

BAD BOSSES "Bosses from hell are those who decide on A in the morning, change to B by lunchtime and back to A in the evening, says a long-suffering architect in a major firm. "So everyone is confused or has different versions and the bosses actually forgot what was finally decided."

A senior executive in the property industry also shares how he was posted overseas as a country manager, and every day at 7.30am his time, his boss in Singapore would call him for an update on business deals done. "He would call even if he didn't have anything to talk about," says the executive who finally quit earlier this year. "We had a joke that he was suffering from separation anxiety."

A hotel sales director would even send the inhouse security guards to patrol the sales team at regular intervals to make sure all the managers were out on sales calls, says one of the affected staffers. "Perhaps he didn't know how else to ensure that the sales targets were being met, but it was very demoralising for the team."

And how about the boss who decides to stop smoking, give up alcohol and go on the Atkins diet in your first week on the job? "He was like a bear with a sore paw who would fl y into a rage at the drop of a pin," shudders the director of a boutique PR agency at the memory of her past employment history. He ‘fired' me three times in my first month, chucked my work out of his office in front of an important client and told me I would never survive in this business. Thankfully, he went back to his vices by my second month, and I ended up working there for five years."

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IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY In a 2015 US Gallup poll of over 7,000 adults, it was revealed that one in two had left their jobs to get away from their bosses at some point in their career, so they could have better control of their life.

In a survey of 1,015 managers carried out by the Singapore Institute of Management last year, over 90 per cent believe that a good boss leads to higher productivity. And their definition of one? It has to be someone who is approachable, communicative, empathetic and understanding.

Happier employees who take ownership of the company will drive the company's bottom line better, points out Wesley Hui, director at WiseNet Asia, an executive search firm.

Which may be why, in the past five years, companies have shifted the focus from ‘employee benefits' to their ‘well-being', say experts in the training and human resource industry.

But it also depends on the kind of company you work for. In Singapore, there are two management styles. There is the classic family run or privately owned business which operates the traditional way, and then there's the international corporation which tends to be managed along western lines.

For the former, the management style is accepted for what it is. But for the latter, there are more international codes of behaviour and standard practices vary from company to company, depending on staff composition, for example, and also different emphases, like human rights.

Chartered psychologist K.C. Lee, who has been in private practice for two years, has yet to consult for traditional companies but has been helping international or more forward-thinking organisations to look after their employees' ‘well-being'.

"Any company can't be having people leave every month, or hire managers every three months," he says. "People tend to leave not because of pay, but because of their bosses or company politics."

But while most would advocate getting rid of toxic managers, they may be valuable to the company for different reasons – they might bring in certain clients or generate high sales, or they're senior in rank. So sacking them isn't a workable solution. It's how to address organisational issues as a whole," he says.

David Ang, Director of Human Capital Singapore, concurs that a key reason people resign is because of their managers. "People can usually stomach most other things; but when it's a bad leader, people will wonder why they should spend their time at the company. So it's critical to grow leadership management."

HOW TO BE A GOOD BOSS WiseNet Asia's Mr Hui lists these attributes of good bosses: those with a clear vision and goals in mind which they can share with their teams; are able to break the goals into executable plans and deploy the team members to execute it; are able to identify team members' strengths and weaknesses and deploy the tasks using their strengths; encourage staff to try new things and ideas and reward them accordingly.

Vikas Verma, director of Aon Hewitt, lists five winning behaviours of good leaders: they are energising, they connect and stabilise; they serve and grow (by putting their teams ahead of themselves and giving credit where it's due); they stay grounded and humble, and understand that people follow them not for their job title but their inherent capabilities; and they step up by not blaming others but taking action and accountability.

Mr Hui seems to walk the talk, according to Chua Poh Yu, a headhunter at WiseNet Asia. "He has a lot of empathy, he recognises the workers' hard work. A good boss allows the workers to express their differing opinions and analyse whether they're in fact better for the company."

A 50-something professional counts ex-hotelier Jennie Chua as her strongest influence when she first joined the Raffles Hotel as a young manager with no hospitality experience. "I was quite incompetent because I couldn't add numbers without making a mistake. She would call me into her room with my calculator and work out numbers in front of her.

"She was quite formidable but she also had a soft side in the way she would do things for seniors and children quietly without seeking publicity. As a hotelier she made sure we held up a high standard of service and we were proud of our work."

GENDER AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES So is it a case of male bosses good, female bosses bad? In Singapore, the feedback seems to point towards leadership style being dependent on the bosses' personality rather than their gender. Even so, the fi rm stereotype remains that senior female bosses tend to be "menopausal", say several interviewees. "In very general terms, I think female bosses like to micro-manage while male bosses prefer to macromanage," says one typical respondent. Then again, skirt-chasing male bosses are yet another confirmed stereotype. "I had a boss who favoured prettier girls and I was probably the plainest staff he had, not to mention oldest, at 30," says a veteran in the leisure business. He had "flavour of the month" types – and the person had the sweetest time of her life under him. Because I could do my job decently, I was okay for the first six months. Thereafter I couldn't seem to do anything right in his eyes and he wouldn't even look at me, just getting someone else to pass me messages."

"It's pretty much down to luck, in my opinion, and you often have no idea that you'll be working with a bad boss until you've actually started work with that person," notes another interviewee.

Gender aside, Singapore's cosmopolitan nature means the opportunity to work under managers of different nationalities, to varying results.

A 40-something finance professional recalls how "I worked once with a German who was based in an overseas head office. She was quite anal about quantitative achievements and didn't grasp fully the business, cultural or socio-economic environment of offices around the world."

Another professional with extensive experience working for both local and foreign bosses notes that bosses from western Europe or North America are more communicative about goals, and prefer to see end results rather than give instructions. They also look at the final outcome rather than being budget-conscious at every step. Asian bosses tend to make decisions and change them along the way, while their western counterparts will delegate it to staff and not interfere with their decisions.

THE TROUBLE WITH BOSSES "When upper management doesn't give clear directions on what the staff need to do and how to go about it, they feel like they're not being given a proper chance to show their fullest potential," says a civil servant who has experienced it first hand. "One of my previous bosses tasked us with a project, but did not make it very clear what we needed to do. The vagueness that always surrounded our next course of action was very worrying," he says.

Being told you can do better or deliver more can also be troubling, says an executive in a design firm. "We were already working six days a week and sometimes more for an old boss, but we did it happily until the new boss (who wanted to impress her higher ups) kept insisting that we could do better,'' he says. "We met almost weekly and the constant note that we left the meeting with was that we could do better. The team felt frustrated and morale was on the decline." Eventually the team quit one after another.

Wendy Heng of recruiting firm Robert Walters Singapore advises that employees won't be able to fathom their bosses' personalities until they actually work under them. "In unfortunate circumstances where we have to work with bad bosses, it might be helpful to understand their working styles and achieve a mutual agreement on your expected deliverables. File away your work accomplishments as this might come in handy during appraisal reviews or in tricky situations where you might be accused of not pulling your weight," she points out.

On the bright side, learning how to manage bad bosses will train us to become more resilient and hopefully, spur us to become effective and more empathetic supervisors in future, she concludes. Either that or look for a boss like that of a manager in a marketing consultancy. "I had an Australian boss who was incredibly disciplined. He would go to work by 8am, work through lunch with just a sandwich and leave by 5 pm. He would call from Sydney at 7 pm Singapore time to ensure that I was not working late as he insisted that I needed to be on my toes for meetings and presentations when a fresh mind was needed.

"It was a refreshing change from the boiler room work ethic we see where one keeps having to stoke a fire to keep going. I learnt that he really did enjoy having nice dinners and parties and when we worked out of his office in Sydney, occasionally he was hung over because he partied as hard as he worked. That's where I learned to enjoy good Australian wine and that there is no such thing as bad wine, just bad ice cubes."

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