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Bad Bosses: Who’s to Blame?


Workplace leaders If we have a bad boss, our typical response is to blame the individual. However, Chetan Dhruve turns conventional logic on its head and explains how our workplaces have been unwittingly designed to mass produce dictator-bosses, and points out what we can do to change this.

When we have a bad boss, what's our typical response? We blame the boss and say: "My boss is bad". In short, we blame the individual. But why are there so many bad bosses around the world, cutting across organisational and national boundaries? The phenomenon of bad bosses simply begs the question: "Rather than individuals being bad, is something about our organisations actually creating bad bosses?"

Strange though it may sound, the answer to that question is yes. Our organisations have been unthinkingly designed to mass-produce dictator bosses. It's as normal to have a bad boss as it is to have a can of cola come out of a cola factory. The problem is that while we have a bad boss production system at our workplaces, we wish for good bosses instead – like wishing that orange juice will appear from a cola factory.

It's abnormal to have good bosses. But when the production line produces bad bosses, we try to train these people to turn them into good bosses. But that's like trying to train cola to turn into orange juice. It doesn't really work. And instead of trying to change the production system, we spend more time, more money and more energy trying to improve our training methods.

The great and noble leader

"It's as normal to have a bad boss as it is to have a can of cola come out of a cola factory."

Just what is this bad boss production system? To answer this, we need to delve into an issue that's much talked about, written about and debated about - leadership. The old boss words such as manager or supervisor don't sound very nice in our apparently enlightened age. So instead, we use that great and noble word, 'leader'.

It seems perfectly reasonable though: bosses are in charge of people, have power over them and lead them. Ergo, they're leaders. Hence we have a proliferation of leaders – group leaders, team leaders, project leaders and so on. But are bosses really leaders? No. Why not?

Well, we need to get into definitions here. In the context of leading people, who really is a leader? Our typical response is in terms of idealized skills, character or personality: a leader is someone who is visionary, inspires people, serves well, praises well, criticizes well, is proactive, action-oriented, emotionally intelligent and so on.

While this sounds like the right answer, it isn't, because we already have a clear and profound definition for 'leader': a person who is elected by the people he or she is leading. We have a different word for someone who assumes power and leads without being elected: dictator.

Now consider this: your boss has power over you. But you don't have a vote. That makes him or her a dictator by definition. And by definition, that makes you a subject. What happens when dictator and subject interact? This is where things get interesting.

The whole system
There's a field of study called 'Systems Thinking', which is the study of wholes and the interactions among its constituent parts. This contrasts with analytical thinking, which examines things by taking them apart. A system is defined as something that owes its existence to the interactions among its parts. If the interactions break down, the system breaks down – it ceases to exist. The system is a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. It's also important to understand that in a system, while the parts affect the whole, the whole also affects the parts.

Now, when two people interact, a larger 'whole' results from that interaction – a relationship. The relationship owes its existence to the interaction. If one person opts out of the relationship, it breaks down. And just like how the individuals affect the relationship, the relationship also affects the individuals. Thus, a relationship is a system.

"A leader is a person who is elected by the people he or she is leading. We have a different word for someone who assumes power and leads without being elected: dictator."

Systems can have properties called 'emergent properties'. These are properties that do not show up until the individual parts of a system interact. Moreover, the whole may have properties that are completely different from those of its parts. For example, the individual parts of an aircraft – the engines, the tail or the wings - cannot fly on their own. But together, and with atmospheric air, the aircraft flies. The property of flight is an 'emergent property'.

Returning to the workplace, we know that a relationship exists between the boss and subordinate. What kind of system is this relationship? A dictatorship system. And what is the emergent property in a dictatorship system? From our knowledge of dictatorship-countries, we know the emergent property for subjects is fear. And for the dictator, it is absolute power and the abuse of that power.

It's important to note that even otherwise normally intelligent and brave people become fearful or compliant when put into a dictatorship system. Likewise, individuals may not reveal any abusive or overbearing traits until they become dictators. Training a dictator to be better behaved simply does not – and cannot - work.

Looking at the boss-subordinate relationship from a systems perspective, it's not surprising that bosses and subordinates behave the way they do. These behaviours are automatic products of the organisation's dictatorship system.

A change is needed
While abusive behaviour by bosses is bad enough, it's not the only outcome of dictatorship systems. There's another problem that's far worse: bad news is suppressed or met with hostility, and whistleblowers working in the best interests of the organisation are punished and have their careers ruined.

Given the terrible consequences of dictatorships, we need to change our organisations from 'fear-systems' to 'free-systems' – systems in which freedom is an emergent property. What kind of system would this be? You already know the answer - a system in which people have the right to vote for their leaders.

What we need to do is to build our organisations on the rock of freedom, rather than the quicksand of fear. The only way to do that, bizarre though it may sound, is to give subordinates the right to vote out their bosses. And fundamentally, we need to change the way we look at leadership – we need to stop talking only about leaders, and instead start talking about systems and the emergent properties they produce. With apologies to Shakespeare, to be free, or not to be free, that is the question.

About the author: Chetan Dhruve is the author of Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator, published by Cyan/ Marshall Cavendish.


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