What’s in a boss?

| 11 May 2023

It’s often said that people join a company and leave a boss. While a company may initially attract a dream candidate with its brand reputation mission and culture, the immediate leader or boss plays the most significant role in how engaged an individual feels day-to-day and on whether the employee decides to stay or leave the company. This happened recently to one of my coaching clients. Let’s call her Clara. She is a ‘she’ and her boss was a ‘he’, but actually this story is about much more than gender. A McKinsey study in late 2022 showed in fact that 22% of senior men, and 29% of senior women were considering leaving their current employer, or the workforce completely for a variety of reasons but mainly to do with culture and work life balance.

We all know that a good boss can inspire and motivate employees, guide and support, and create a positive work environment. In contrast, a bad boss creates a toxic work climate, demotivates employees which leads to high turnover. Research shows that the relationship between an employee and their boss is a critical factor in job satisfaction and retention. A recent Gallup study found that 75% of employees who voluntarily leave their jobs do so because of their boss.

But back to Clara. She is a highly successful professional woman. Having fruitfully moved ‘up the career ladder’ for many years, both through navigating the organisational hierarchy in long term jobs and through occasional job moves, which she admits were more accidental than planned, something has changed, dramatically, more recently. She’s reeling from a ‘bad bounce’. Having left a bad boss after many years’ service, she took the plunge to sign up, on the rebound, to what seemed like a great role and company, only to find the reality of the job not quite what the slick recruitment process and espoused ‘employee brand proposition’ had promised. Her boss changed the goalposts almost straight away on what had been promised by way of resources, investment and staff to support the stretchy objectives she’d been set. The reality she experienced was a very political culture, where decisions were made subjectively, based on strength of relationships (often long established) rather than on performance.

I see this all the time. Fantastic employees who rub along against the highs and lows of organisational life, alongside both nice colleagues and awful ones, for ages, and then, bang, suddenly decide enough is enough and walk away. Why? Having had the benefit of probing many of the leaders I work with about their motives, I think this is about more than us all contemplating our future’s and life choices as a result of a global pandemic (although that phenomenon is real) or the equally real exodus from the workforce of senior female talent in the 45-55 age bracket . It’s about power. It’s about the negative impact of power and politics in the workplace and an individual’s ability and waning interest to navigate it and to sustain the effort of navigating it over time.

This got me thinking about motivation theory. A chap called David McClelland, many decades ago, conducted extensive research into motivation theory and identified three social motives or innate, deep rooted drivers. These were the need for achievement (the desire to do something better than has been done before, aka the person who sets ridiculously high standards for self and others) the need for power (the desire to control influence will be responsible for other people) and the need for affiliation (the desire to maintain close and friendly personal relationships). We all have all of these needs to some extent and the relative strength of them influences what will motivate a person. What’s interesting is that for managers, the need for achievement is predictive of advancement through lower levels of management but power is predictive of higher levels of more senior leadership attainment.

So what’s this this got to do with leaving a bad boss? Well, we don’t leave a boss because of their skills and knowledge, what they know or don’t know. We leave because of their behaviour, and how their behaviour impacts us – and we know that someone’s motives have a strong influence on their thoughts and behaviours.

Power in particular, has negative connotations. When people talk about power we have visions of manipulating others, defeating the opposition, winning an argument or attaining a position of greater status or authority. Leaders with high personalised power may exercise power impulsively, be rude, aggressive, give unsolicited advice, or take credit for the work of their team, with the intent to bolster their own status or make a point to benefit them rather than to the organisation. Working for a leader with high personalised power can be disempowering experience, with the leader more concerned about their own interests than in listening to and engaging with their teams. It takes a lot of energy to manage upwards to a boss exhibiting these behaviours, and it’s particularly hard to do if you are someone who themself doesn’t find a need to influence others and navigate politics high on their list and who thinks that success should depend on effort, ability and outcomes rather than on politics.

Not all power is negative. Power is more complex and there is a difference between what we call personalised power and socialised power. In contrast to personalised power, socialised power is much more heavily correlated with effective leadership. This type of power directs influence in socially positive ways that benefit others in the organisation rather than only contributing to their own success. Leaders with high socialised power motives are less likely to use power in a manipulative way less narcissistic and offensive and less concerned with power or status and importantly more willing to receive consultation advice. They realise that power must be distributed and shared and give their employees a sense of influence over their own jobs.

The moral to the story? It’s essential for companies to invest in training and development for their managers to help them become more aware of (and to actively manage) their motives and personality traits and become better leaders of people. Organisations are duty bound to set behavioural expectations and standards for leaders as well as performance expectations – only this will provide a fair and level playing field for their employees and create a more positive and inclusive work environment. And job hunters themselves can do much more due diligence about the culture they’ll be joining – use networks, meet as broad a cross section of future colleagues as possible, ask the hiring manager about their style and expectations.

All of this will help improve employee retention rates and ultimately benefit the overall success of the organisation.


Jody Goldsworthy is a Partner within the leadership consulting team at NSCG.

Learn more about Jody here.


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