Want a Healthy Organization and Healthy Employees? The Quality of Leadership is Everything

When watching a comic movie about the workplace, we all laugh about how ridiculous and over-the-top bosses can be and how they negatively impact the main characters; it’s good movie-viewing. I’ve actually watched movies like this more than once and laughed just as hard with each viewing. However, in real life what makes bosses so horrible is often a bit less explicit and not so funny.

• In many cases, managers and leaders think they are doing a decent job and don’t always realize the negative impact they have on the people they are supposed to support. These managers and leaders aren’t intentionally being horrible; but their lack of awareness, skill, clarity of direction, ability to deal with change, stress, and own personal wellbeing impact their effectiveness – with the effect on employees being the same.

• It has long been said that people quit bosses more than they quit the company. However, the more I think about this, I start to wonder how much of this is true. After all, the company has a responsibility to develop and support its leaders. Yet, too often, bosses are rock-star individual contributors who get promoted into management with little, if any, training.

• Then there are executives who are often ignored because it’s assumed that at their level they “know it all.” Yet most research on effective leaders promotes the importance of ongoing learning, development, and self-reflection.

Even some of the best places to work and award-winning companies that actually conduct engagement and culture surveys, exit interviews, and 360-degree feedback, often don’t listen to the feedback. The result: Employees start to sense feedback is pointless, and the vicious cycle of not having authentic feedback and nothing being done continues.

Despite some best intentions, there can still be a powerful disconnect between leadership and the employee experience, though sometimes management doesn’t see it. Too often, leadership can be in denial – dismissing any evidence that things are not as great as they’d like, despite their efforts.

If you ask people (particularly top performing employees) who leave an organization for other employment why they leave, you’ll typically hear these four reasons:

1. I’m burned out! The stress and lack of work/life balance just isn’t worth it anymore.

2. My boss. He/she is a micro-manager, doesn’t appreciate me, isn’t fully leveraging my strengths, etc.

3. Executive Leadership. Company executives are disconnected from what is really going on; they aren’t approachable; there isn’t clarity of where the company is headed, etc.

4. I don’t feel valued. According to a recent Career Builder survey cited in Forbes (Why Your Top Talent Is Leaving In 2014, And What It’ll Take To Retain Them), 65% of employees looking for new jobs said they are looking because they don’t feel valued.

A Case Study of a Typical Employer

One company we’ll call Jones Corp. experienced what far too many companies experience.The company had won awards and was a great place to work. However, with growth and a dynamic marketplace, things began to change. The executive team held onto its outdated identity far too long and dismissed any information to the contrary. It got to the point that the employee norm was to not be fully honest on surveys because nothing would change; and, in fact, people learned not to provide critical comments for fear of management retaliation.

As people’s stress levels rose, top quality employees started leaving the company. Yet leadership found excuses each time and provided a “spin” on each departure. Interestingly, in spite of this, there were still many highly engaged employees. The employee culture experience varied depending on the department in which people worked; the manager or leader made all of the difference. One department had such a leader:

• He was a great advocate for his employees. He supported them in finding meaningful work, helped them feel valued and pushed innovation.

• Many of his employees felt like they were in a “protective bubble,” from the rest of the company craziness. As long as they were treated well, they were engaged.

• The department employees were a highly energized, cohesive team.

But then, that changed. Morale plummeted, and highly-skilled, top-performing employees started leaving the department as well. And many other department employees were actively seeking other employment and praying to get out of the situation.

What changed? If you ask the people who left and who were seeking other employment:

• They all said, “Our boss changed; it’s not the same anymore.”

• People reported feeling micro-managed and not feeling empowered to have autonomy to do what was right by the customer.

• Employees reported being frustrated with how the boss treated people inconsistently and applied inconsistent standards with no valid explanation.

• They said their boss had become “nit-picky,” and they couldn’t remember the last time he had said anything positive; and

• Not surprisingly, the increasing turnover started to raise concerns among customers.

A Case Study of What Happens to the Individual Employee

What happened with Jones Corp. is not that uncommon. But what companies frequently fail to recognize is what this type of environment, culture and situation does to an individual employee… what it does to the employee experience and employee wellbeing.

We can learn a lot from what happened to one employee in this department at Jones Corp. As this shift was occurring with top quality employees leaving and morale plummeting, here is what happened to Robin:

• She began to feel the stress that her colleagues had experienced before they ultimately left the company.
• She shifted from being highly engaged to having her wellbeing erode. Where she once felt her boss had her back and supported her, she now walked on egg shells.
• Robin was reprimanded for doing things to innovate and grow that were once supported. As a survival instinct, she started to withdraw; after all, who wants to go to social functions and pretend when you feel betrayed and don’t know who to trust?
• Robin described feeling like she was being put into a dark, tiny box and then reprimanded for withdrawing and not being outgoing.
• And the tipping point: She had a death in the family and never received any human acknowledgment from her boss; no “I’m sorry for your loss” or any token statement you’d even give to a complete stranger.
• She started not sleeping; her GI system was completely messed up; she was having chronic headaches and back aches; and she was an emotional wreck, which her child sensed and responded to by acting out in school.

As a company, watching previously outgoing, engaged employees withdraw should have been an immediate red flag. However, executive leadership, rather than looking at why this shift was happening with Robin and her co-workers, created excuses and blamed the individual employees. Makes perfect sense, right?

So is the boss to blame?

Maybe. Robin thought she was quitting her boss. But the company allowed this to happen and continued to do nothing. So I really am rethinking this notion of who is responsible in these situations.

“What the heck changed with the boss?” most department employees wondered. Was something going on in his personal life? Was he now being treated differently? None of it excused his downward shift in leadership effectiveness; but why was the company not recognizing that he needed development and support? Why was the company not protecting the employees it still had left (who would likely be the next to leave)?

Jones Corp. also happened to have all of the environmental supports for wellbeing and offered wellness programs; but what impact can that really have when the culture and managers are essentially making employees sick?!

• Who cares if your leaders are role models for “healthy behaviors” if they treat their employees like crap?

• Who cares if your leaders help communicate messages about wellness programs if their employees don’t trust them?

• Who cares if your workplace has healthy food, an onsite fitness center and other traditional wellness initiatives that make up what many people refer to as a “healthy culture” if employees are stressed or miserable because of their relationship with their manager?

• Who cares about employee wellness when your boss and your work are essentially making you sick?

For Jones Corp., is the boss at fault or executive leadership? Likely both. Regardless, having ineffective leadership hurts both organizational and individual wellbeing.

Every interaction people have with a leader reinforces their belief about the organizational culture – about whether they are valued and supported. And it has lasting effects.

And when a traumatized employee from an unhealthy culture begins to work in a new, healthy culture, with a truly thriving workplace and a phenomenal boss, the lingering effects often last. People like Robin report continuing to walk on egg shells, still worrying about pissing off the new boss. They continue to be concerned about whether they’re doing a good job, or whether they will be reprimanded for staying home with a sick child, etc. – concerns which have nothing to do with the new boss, but which linger from the traumatic experiences with their previous boss.

The bottom line!

The quality of leadership is EVERYTHING! It determines organizational health, employees’ daily culture experience, and ultimately employee wellbeing – particularly physical and emotional wellbeing. Quality leadership development needs to be a cornerstone of any high-performing organization and thriving workplace culture, and a pre-requisite for any successful employee wellbeing initiative.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at rosie@salveopartners.com or drrosieward.com.

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