Why bosses suck

Around ten days back, I met a cousin who is doing her MBA from a premier business school in the country. She has just finished her summer training and was rather disappointed with her boss (aren’t we all?).

My cousin, of course, goes back to her MBA course and hence, does not need to deal with her now former boss, on a daily basis. But everybody is not as lucky. In fact, time and again research has shown that “people quit their bosses and not their jobs”.

And the tragedy is that most organisations do not address this issue at all. Also, if you are honest enough to highlight this fact in your exit interview, chances are you won’t get hired back by the company in the days to come, if a such situation arises at all.

So the question to ask is why do bosses suck? Many years back, Laurence J. Peter came up with the Peter’s Principle, which essentially states that every person rises to his or her level of incompetence in an organisational hierarchy. So good software coders do not always make for good project managers, once they are promoted. Good teachers do not make for good principals. Good breaking news reporters do not make for good editors. And good batsmen do not always make for a great captain.

This happens primarily because individuals get promoted up the hierarchy on the basis of how good they are at their current job. But once they have been promoted the skill-set required to handle their next job maybe totally different. And they may not have that skill-set at all. This lack of competence creates a problem for those who report to them.

What this means is that everyone is not suited for being promoted up the hierarchy. Nevertheless, people need to be promoted. As Dan Ariely, an Israeli American professor of psychology and behavioural economics, writes in his new book Irrationally Yours: “[The] feeling of progress is very important to our well-being and it provides gratification, self-esteem, and recognition from our peers.” And this feeling of progress comes when people are promoted.

One way companies have tried to tackle the “feeling of progress” is by creating more layers in the hierarchy, where an individual gets promoted, gets a new designation, perhaps more money, but is essentially doing the same thing.

As Ariely puts it: “Widespread recognition of the need for progress explains why so many companies have invented titles and intermediate positions for management types (officer executive,… vice president, senior vice president, deputy CEO, etc.)…Companies want their employees to feel that they are making progress and moving ahead even when these steps are not very meaningful…Most companies across all positions, have a list of titles that give all employees the feeling that we are moving ahead on this treadmill.”

The trouble is that this game of “inventing titles” has not done anything to solve the basic problem of individuals rising to their level of incompetence in a hierarchy. In fact, research shows that incompetent bosses know that they are “incompetent” and this makes them aggressive and a “pain in the ass” for the individuals who report to them.

As Nathanael J. Fast and Serena Chen write in a research paper titled When the Boss Feels Inadequate: “A lack of perceived personal competence may foster aggression among the powerful. We base this idea on the notion that power increases the degree to which individuals feel that they need to be competent—both in order to hold onto their power and to fulfil the demands and expectations that come with their high-power roles.”

The researchers further state that: “Power holders who perceive themselves as personally incompetent might display aggression.” And that’s why bosses continue and will continue to suck. Further, organisations not do anything about it.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared on Bangalore Mirror on June 10, 2015