Updated: Feb 27
Your supervisor has a huge impact on your life. I have had plenty of meh supervisors – the ones who aren’t great at their job, but don’t really get in your way. I just worked around them and was marginally irritated the few times they did get in my way or asked too many questions. On the other hand, I have left two jobs directly because of straight-up bad supervisors.
The first time it happened, the organization I was working for had been going downhill for a while, so a new manager was brought in to cut costs. That manager immediately began pulling my residence life staff away from their duties of supporting students to do menial labor like picking up trash so they didn’t have to hire anyone else to do it. As the manager shaved more and more of my staff’s actual job responsibilities to do basic labor and began a plan to reduce their benefits, I knew it was time to go. This manager didn’t impact my role directly, but it was stressful to constantly go to bat to protect my staff and the students that were being negatively impacted in an effort to save money. I worried about leaving my staff behind, but I knew there was little I could do to salvage the situation so I made a quick exit.
The second time it happened, I was cautiously optimistic when my new supervisor came on board. Unfortunately, I quickly – and painfully – learned that the open, caring demeanor this manager presented to my coworkers and I was a rouse. My ability to speak honestly about situations and concerns was shut down. Or rather, I learned that doing so was going to cost me in the end, so I began to choose my battles carefully. My authenticity had to be put aside in order to stay at the job. Initially I thought the pros outweighed the negative – I loved my coworkers, my staff, the students, and the work I was doing – at least the work I was doing that wasn’t being disrupted, or undermined, by my supervisor. I had always valued my ability to speak honestly and solve problems in a strategic way without being concerned about political implications. I went from being strategic to improve the college and students’ experience to being strategic to protect myself and my staff. I kept quiet when my supervisor made decisions or implemented policies that could (and did) create huge problems. I knew my supervisor had already made up their mind so to disagree meant political payback. My engagement at work went from engaged to disengaged (sometimes actively disengaged depending on the day) in most areas of my job.
The more I had to ignore my own voice, the more the situation negatively impacted my health – physically, emotionally, and mentally. I became anxious whenever my supervisor called a meeting with me or whenever a potentially heated situation occurred. I knew I’d either have to take a stand and deal with the consequences, or suppress my authentic self. I spent huge amounts of mental and emotional energy running through different scenarios in my mind to decide the best course of action both at work and at home (and by best I just mean least destructive). I was never a super-fit athlete, but I started gaining weight even though I wasn’t eating differently and still made sure to get to the gym three days a week. I started getting sick more frequently – which wasn’t ideal, but hey, at least I didn’t have to go to work for a few days. At the end of each day, I had almost zero energy so I spent my evenings watching Netflix. I went from loving my job so much that I’d swing buy to say hi or have lunch with coworkers on my days off to dreading each day. I was too numb to cry and was angry most of the other time. I knew I was in trouble when my New Year’s resolution was to do one thing a day to keep my soul from dying. That’s when I knew I had to figure out my next step. I was not the only person who left because of this manager.
I’m not sure if my story resonates with you, but unless you’re un- or self-employed, you’re going to have a manager/supervisor. A good supervisor can make a huge impact on your well being - not just at work, but at home as well. (We like to think that we can separate our work and home lives, but that’s not how our brains work. A stressful job brings that negative energy with you wherever you go.) Unfortunately, good supervisors seem to be the exception rather than the norm.
Bad supervisors are pervasive and can be the source of some great comedy – The Office, Office Space, 9 to 5, Horrible Bosses, etc. – but they aren’t so funny in real life. Granted the level of badness can vary, but Gallup research has found that "Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores." https://www.gallup.com/workplace/232955/no-employee-benefit-no-one-talking.aspx?g_source=link_wwwv9&g_campaign=item_237395&g_medium=copy
Engagement scores have a huge impact on productivity, health, attendance, and participation at work. So, bad supervisors have a huge negative effect on employee absenteeism, turnover, engagement, wellbeing, productivity, creativity as well as customer satisfaction and ultimately profit. (Even if you’re working at a non-profit organization, less money coming in impacts staffing, services, and ultimately how well you can succeed at your mission.) In short, bad supervisors or managers are expensive.
When we think of all the budget cuts in education, we think about making do with old equipment, cutting services or staff, hiring and/or raise freezes, making fewer copies, buying our own office supplies, and doing across the board cuts to budget lines. What we rarely think about is how much bad managers are costing our institutions. While exact figures vary depending on the expert or study, replacing staff and faculty who leave because of a bad manager ranges from, at the most conservative, tens of thousands of dollars to 213% of a skilled employee’s annual salary (these amounts factor in recruiting costs, training and onboarding, development, and cost of having the role unfilled). https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-much-does-employee-turnover-really-cost_us_587fbaf9e4b0474ad4874fb7 Even if we split the difference and say it “only” costs 100% of an employee’s salary to fill that position, if a job pays $50,000, that’s $100,000 the organization has to pay to both hire that individual and pay them for the year. What could your organization do with an extra $50,000?
Even if all of a bad supervisor’s employees aren’t quitting (yet), think about the increased cost for health care. Bad supervisors increase employee stress. Increased stress negatively impacts employees’ health. I had more doctor’s visits, counseling appointments, sick days, and quite honestly a complete lack of motivation – aka engagement – when I did go to work. All that cost my employer money both from a productivity standpoint as well as increased benefits costs. (I know I wasn’t the only one who had more health issues, so while I don’t credit myself with driving up health care costs alone, I know collectively it made an impact.) Bad managers increase stress on employees and drive up health care costs for the organization. https://www.nhbr.com/July-20-2018/Bad-bosses-are-killing-your-profit/
I could go on, but this is all starting to bum me out. I’ll talk about solutions in later blogs, but what I wanted to do here is help people better understand how much damage a bad boss can actually do beyond employees complaining a bit more or having to do a bit more work. Managers without proper training and who haven’t invested in their talents with the appropriate skills and knowledge do more harm than good. I don't know about you, but I’m tired of seeing bad supervisors create havoc within our institutions without anyone stepping in to address it. Most people don’t like confronting others, so people usually don’t…or they cross their fingers and hope those managers do something that technically violates some obscure policy or does something so egregious that firing them is the institutions only option. Unfortunately, that rarely happens – and even if it does, the amount those supervisors have cost the organization in the mean time is ginormous. Meanwhile budgets for essential services, staff, and supplies are being cut. When that happens, it’s our students who ultimately pay the price. It’s time to start saving money where it counts by investing in hiring and training good supervisors.