Management is like oxygen: pervasive, invisible and intangible, but essential for healthy functioning. It can also be toxic and corrosive! In the inhospitable, rarified heights of the working world, breathable oxygen can be hard to find. This is why it’s often said that employees don’t quit companies; they quit their bosses.
The truism is supported by recent industry research, with leadership development consultancy Development Dimensions International (DDI) finding 57% of respondents have left a job because of their manager in its Frontline Leader Project study.
Setting aside statistics, my own experiences throughout a tumultuous tenure in media and related fields tend to agree with DDI’s findings, as condensed by the great Scott Adams at the turn of the century in his iconic “boss matrix”. I have reproduced Adams’s matrix in a slightly more politically correct form below:
Morality versus emotional intelligence
The matrix boils down “good” management to two qualities: competence and attitude. As competence is a much more complex area of discussion, I will focus on the “attitude” aspect of management, as simplified by the concept of emotional intelligence.
Adams defined the two extremes of attitude as “nice” and “evil” in his prescient perspective, which I have paraphrased as “pleasant” and “problematic” above. Even from this early juncture, it’s apparent that even defining “good” attitudes in management is tricky.
For example, business factors may call for the downsizing of employee headcounts. To some employees, a “nice” boss would avoid downsizing entirely, in favour of retaining all employees, while an “evil” manager would go through with the downsizing exercise.
This is often romanticised in fiction, where a group of likeable characters sticks together and overcomes all odds to succeed as a team. For many, watching works of fiction may be the closest they come to dealing with the moral ambiguity of organisational leadership.
However, as a manager in the real world, would avoiding downsizing in the example above have been the right call? The continued pressure of a full employee roster on payroll – which often constitutes the highest cost of doing business – can place the firm as a whole on uncertain financial footing, jeopardising the livelihood of every employee in the company.
In short, conventional morality breaks down when you assume responsibility for larger and larger groups of individuals. A nice manager may have to make painful decisions for people he or she has cared for and nurtured over time, which from the narrower perspective of the individual employee may not be nice at all.
All of the above will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to let a valued employee go. With even “nice” bosses having to make tough calls now and then, the metric by which attitude is measured must be revisited. Here, the key notion is that even if painful decisions must be made, they can be implemented and communicated in a way that minimises emotional impacts to those affected.
The undiscovered country
This is where emotional intelligence comes into play in management practice. It is unlikely that someone can manage the emotions of a team under his or her care if they are not aware and in control of their own. Empathy, sensitivity and introspection are necessary to effectively identify, anticipate, sympathise with and support emotions in others.
Emotional intelligence also has numerous benefits outside of team management. It is essential, for example, in helping managers deal with the stress inherent to any leadership position – or for workers in any workplace environment. It is also useful in any situation dealing with people, which, in the modern context, encompasses the depth and breadth of human interaction.
As if that wasn’t enough, San Diego-based emotional intelligence consultant TalentSmart has reported a positive correlation between EQ (emotional quotient) and income. In its research, the firm found that workers with a high EQ earn US$29,000 (RM121,440) more per year than those with low EQs.
Unfortunately, a cursory review of curricula vitae, cover letters, resumes, portfolios and LinkedIn profiles in the Malaysian context will show that EQ, empathy, sensitivity and introspection simply aren’t a priority for domestic employers or workers.
This problem is not limited to Malaysia, as the current recruitment and business paradigm worldwide emphasises obvious achievement in favour of sustainability. The fact that humility is often cited as the highest level of emotional intelligence probably doesn’t help matters, either. The result, however, is a prevalence of toxicity in work environments, and employee turnover as the norm rather than the exception.
In the end, the ideal of a good manager implies that they must be both more and less than human. They must be acutely in tune with the emotional currents of their team, and endlessly patient in navigating them. At the same time, they must harden themselves to make difficult decisions which may adversely impact individuals for the greater good of the organisation.
Throughout my working life, I have had the fortune and misfortune to work under supervisors whose management approaches lie somewhere within the modern management matrix. While outside the scope of the current article, I will review practices I have observed in pleasant, effective managers in future writing.
For now, I will leave readers with the assurance that such supervisors are no myth, despite Adams’s satirical jabs to the contrary. My current employer is proof of that!
By Aliff Yusri, Senior Public Relations Manager, Mustard Tree Communications