Philip Whiteley's Blog

July 6, 2011

Good Boss, Bad Boss

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:23 pm

One of the puzzles about management and leadership is the wealth of evidence showing the commercial benefits of an enlightened style that motivates staff, and the common experience of a more uninspiring working environment. Just last month, the Chartered Management Institute found that nearly two thirds of employees felt unable to call on their boss for help, and over a third said that their boss added to their stress levels. Morale had fallen in the previous six months in the vast majority of respondents.

Even allowing for the presence of a few grumpy staff who lack a work ethic, these are higher findings than you would expect when looking at the correlation of motivated staff and better business results, also summarised recently.

I’m convinced that the explanation is that the Good Boss theory about work is not the only one. There is also the Bad Boss theory. This never gets written up in the Harvard Business Review, but it has had some influential proponents over the years (Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, etc). This holds that the more you exploit the workers, and minimise the cost of employing them, the higher the profits. You find this argument in A Christmas Carol, in Marx’s theory of surplus value, and Friedman’s cult of profit at any cost, with its performance targets and obsessive monitoring. The cultural influence is somewhat under the radar.

So the Good Boss and Bad Boss theories are actually at war with each other. A manager may have some coaching on how to be enlightened; but then along comes a corporate restructure based on the Friedman vision, or a new call centre that is designed on measuring cost and monitoring calls. Motivation gets pushed out as so much unnecessary fluff.

The fact that the Bad Boss theory often fails in practice rarely succeeds in diminishing its appeal to the cynical preferences of economic and political thinking. These have had the dominant influence on how we actually design workplaces and approach the management task.



  1. Interesting thoughts Philip. I agree (and am equally disgruntled) with the premise that the ‘Bad Boss’ theory has held the upper hand through decades. I have often found myself at odds with the prevailing thinking of the ‘business community’ (if such a thing exists…. I don’t actually see much evidence of a community in the true sense – and certainly very little of that which would generally be viewed as ‘community spirit’) and have long been puzzled that a typical MBA programme touches on a few prevalent motivational theories before then focusing for several months on a variety of ways of establishing and tracking key performance indicators. Those who purport to support a ‘balanced scorecard’ approach often include supposedly ‘human resource’ measures – but then use HR KPIs that are often really financial measures in disguise (headcount, staff turnover, absence & sickness, spend on training et al). In my view, the growth of the ‘HR’ movement appears to have encouraged businesses and business leaders to focus on the ‘Resources’ at the expense of the ‘Human’…. At The National Centre for Strategic Leadership, one of our most fundamental beliefs is that senior management have an absolute and unequivocal responsibility to provide inspirational and visionary strategic leadership that enable employees to feel fully engaged in their work, with the organisation and with their leaders. As Dan Pink says in his excellent ‘Drive’ book, summarised in his piece on RSA (see or see the excellent animated version at, the modern sophisticated employee has a whole different set of motivators from the days when everyone jumped for the jellybeans – yet much of organisational structure and infrastructure is based on an outmoded class system that assumes a ‘theory X’ workforce that will only perform for financial incentives, hard measures or close supervision. As he proposes, the more capable people are looking for challenge, mastery and purpose, not just employment and a paycheque. Its a puzzling reality gap isn’t it? We all seem to know the theory and the principles, indeed I rarely meet any leader who will openly admit to being Theory X or to holding the view that staff are really serfs….yet practice suggest something very different.

    But what if Dan Pink is right………..

    Comment by Nigel Girling — July 11, 2011 @ 7:45 am | Reply

  2. Great input – thanks Nigel. That’s a new insight for me: that the supposed people elements in the balanced scorecard end up being bean-counting measures in disguise. Hadn’t thought of that. I totally agree with Dan Pink’s perspective; although I don’t feel this is a new development – it’s pretty much always been there. The Hawthorne experiments showed that the way in which people were treated and respected was the single most important factor in motivation. But the significance of this experiment has been systematically under-stated by the cynical uber-myths, and people pretended it was just about observation. Similarly, Deming’s teaching began as ‘driving out fear’ but ended up with TQM, often implemented in ways that heightened fear. So I conclude that management theory and evidence are not the most important influences on how managers actually go about their craft: the big influences are economic theory and popular culture, absorbed from childhood onwards.

    Comment by felipewh — July 13, 2011 @ 8:26 am | Reply

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