The Case of the Horrible Boss and the Service Culture

ITSM History

Unusual as it might seem I was inspired to write this article having thoroughly enjoyed a magazine article.  The article in question was digested in the early hours of the morning as I sat homeward bound after a trip to the States.  No, you haven’t misheard me; I was ‘inspired’ by reading an inflight magazine.  Nestled within some strange adverts for unusual products was a gem of a few well penned lines.

The spirit behind the text really supported the teachings of two of my favourite service improvement gurus, the veritable W Edwards Deming and John Paul Kotter.

Anyone who has read the works of Deming will know that he has inspired many with his teaching dating back to the 70’s.  Even today his work is relevant and inspiring; much of it is encapsulated in the ITIL core guidance book – Continual Service Improvement.

The article focused on the curse of bad managers.

Horrible Bosses are real and a part of many lives

Some of you may well have seen a recent film comedy Horrible Bosses, the story of three truly dreadful managers who make their employees’ lives miserable. They exhibit a range of traits we evidence too often; the very worst ABC’s (Attitude, Behaviours and Culture) evident in so many organisations.

In the film the first horrible boss is a cruel executive who dangles a promotion in front of a subordinate as bait, only to snatch it away once his stupid demands have been met. The second is a mean drug addict who inherits the family business from his kind, deceased father. The third is an orthodontist who sexually harasses her assistant, threatening to tell his fiancée that it’s his fault.

The three victims in the movie can’t just leave their jobs.  They need them!  Instead, they compose elaborate, farcical plots to eliminate the bosses.

The sad truth is, horrible bosses are a huge part of many employees’ lives!  Second – Horrible Bosses = Bad Managers = Productivity and moral issues = Poor services!

What makes a horrible boss?

The article went on to consider some bad boss traits; these include but are not limited to:

  • Control – Expecting subordinates to be on call 24/7 and to hit unrealistic deadlines with limited resources.
  • Imposing falsely urgent timescales – Even when the requested work is completed within deadlines it is ignored for long intervals, making it clear that the deadline was artificial and the stress unnecessary.
  • Ignorance – Failing to acknowledge, let alone reward good work.

In our own real worlds there are many horrible bosses, doing similar horrible, often worse things.  Such issues can be overcome.  The correct levels of governance, team work, performance management, definition of roles, responsibility and good process can help but only if they are well conceived and fairly and accurately measured.

Follow Kotter’s 8 Steps

J P Kotter had the right idea.  Kotter developed a list of factors that he believes lead to successful changes, and those that lead to failure. He devised an 8 step method where the first four steps focus on de-freezing the organization, the next three steps make the change happen, and the last step re-freezes the organization with a new culture. When people need to make big changes significantly and effectively, he says that this goes best if the 8 steps happen in order.

Step 1 of his eight steps focused on establishing a ‘vision’.

Step 2 told us to ’form a guiding coalition’.  This means that when you work on your stakeholder map and you form a view of who’s supporting you and who isn’t, as well as who has the power and who hasn’t; rather than focusing on a big bad boss you build your army around you.  That way he/she starts to self-reflect and wonder why everyone else seems to be supporting the other team!

As my much enjoyed article said “ …the best cure for horrible bosses is alternative relationships and collaboration. Organizations that foster strong, multidimensional relationships among colleagues weaken the control of a single autocratic boss. They make it more likely that the sins of horrible bosses will be exposed to others who can stop them…”

Team relationships, support and empathy can drive positive changes in group dynamics within an organisation.  I can certainly evidence this.  My role as a consultant is about helping organisations to embrace service management and foster a service culture.  This is only successful if focus on making organisational change is right at the core.  I spend more time working on this aspect of a change that thinking about the process and the tools.  It’s the part that takes the most time and the bit that if ignored will scupper the whole project.  In short positive ‘pack’ behaviour is a must!

Focus on the mission

The article went on to site another good way to neutralize horrible bosses.  That is to focus on the mission, the vision of the organisation and help others around you succeed.  This was Kotter’s step 1.  I’ve had to deal with some very ‘anti’ senior managers and push on with change regardless.  My tactic; ignore the manager (outwardly at least) and forge ahead with building the pack.  Looking for the organisation super heroes and measuring performance to direct activity and focus.  Faced with positive results quite often the shame faced horrible boss either changes allegiance (and all of a sudden the change initiatives were actually horrible boss’s idea) or they know they have lost so move sideways or disappear down a crack somewhere.

In the movie, the three beleaguered victims help one another, and the horrible bosses fall on their own swords.

W Edwards Deming teaching on the Service-Profit Chain supports these principles.  He suggested that two-thirds of customers who defect do so because of poor service.  In order for customer service to drive profits, every link in your service-profit chain – employee capability, job satisfaction, productivity, employee loyalty and customer satisfaction must be strong.

Positive relationships are critical

The service-profit chain stressed the importance of people, employees and customers – and how linking they can leverage corporate performance. The service-profit chain is an equation that establishes the relationship between corporate policies, employee satisfaction, value creation, customer loyalty, and profitability.  This supports the principle that positive relationships are a must in any successful organisation.

On that recent work engagement I was trying to lighten the mood in the training room.  I shared a few of my own horrible boss stories in an effort to really bring the teamwork messages to life.  My students chuckled and asked if “I’d enjoyed the rant”.  It was all a little personal and real for me but its stories like that which have the most impact.  I’ve had some horrible bosses, I’ve had some excellent ones too… each should know in which camp they sit.  I told them all at some point in our working relationship; although the bad ones may still be blissfully unaware of how I felt about them!

It all makes perfect sense.  In reality if you have ‘horrible bosses’ you do need some real ambassadors, indeed philanthropists to unseat them and take the army forward.

Be Brave!

The message then – The best cure for horrible bosses is vision, collaboration, teamwork and wonderful colleagues.  If you want to take your organisation forward and establish a positive service oriented culture, focused on continual service improvement you need to overcome the curse of horrible bosses; in the most part common sense and good practice guidance will help.  Not forgetting, of course a pinch of bravery!

Cited article – US Airways In Flight magazine (Winter 2011)

Michelle Major-Goldsmith

Michelle Major-Goldsmith

Michelle Major-Goldsmith is Lead Architect for the Service Integration and Management Professional Body of Knowledge and a founder member of the SIAM Foundation BoK architect team. In 2017 the team were awarded Thought Leaders of the Year by the itSMF UK. Michelle has been a committee member of various forums for many years including itSMF WA Branch and AXELOS global best practice working group. In 2010 she was awarded the UK itSMF Trainer of the Year award. In 2017 she was awarded the Service Management Champion of the Year by itSMF Australia and in 2018 shared the award of itSMF Thought Leader as well as being listed as one of the top 25 service management people to follow on Twitter.