Philip Whiteley's Blog

July 27, 2011

Why do NGOs promote the Horrible Boss?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:16 am

Jennifer Aniston has not, I can exclusively reveal, made repeated attempts to get me into bed while working as my boss. I have been spared that particular nightmare.

The Horrible Boss comes in many different forms, vividly demonstrated in the new Hollywood movie of that name, in which Ms Aniston plays Dr Julia Harris, the sexual predator of Dale Arbus, the young fiancé played by Charlie Day. The archetypal Horrible Boss is a staple of literature, TV sitcom and film, from Ebenezer Scrooge to David Brent in The Office and now the ghastly trio in the latest big screen outing.

It is a starkly different world from that of management literature, in which the Good Boss is promoted, based on decades of research showing the close correlation between employee engagement and business success. It often assumed that these enlightened principles will simply seep through to the world’s corporations, given the sheer amount of supportive research and good practice. Until recently, I shared this optimism.

I wonder, however. The teaching that the Horrible Boss is good for business never takes place in a formal classroom. No one will opt for the MBA module on how to maximise profits by being a complete s-o-b. But that is not the only way in which learning gets done. Business leaders have also learned from parents, peers, their own bosses, books, song lyrics and Hollywood movies.

Most seriously of all, the Horrible Boss theory is propagated by those who represent the workers. Consider the following statement from a recent report by China Labor Watch:

‘Foxconn should not bear the only responsibility for worker suicides: Apple, HP, Dell and other international OEMs should also be held responsible, as their goal of profit maximization comes at the cost of workers’ wages and sub-optimal working conditions.’[i]

One explanation is that engagement only matters for highly skilled, highly paid staff, and is unimportant for Chinese workers on a production line. This is widely believed, but not based on evidence. I am aware of two major companies employing large numbers of people for relatively low-skilled jobs who boosted profits both while and by improving wages and career opportunities. The savings came in higher productivity, reduced absence and lower staff turnover. See the ISS case study in this report; the other will appear in New Normal, Radical Shift, due out next year, that I am writing with Neela Bettridge.

A news item based on the China Labor Watch report included the comment by one of the suppliers that ‘We have a high turnover rate of workers in this industry.’ You can be certain that none of them has measured the cost of high staff turnover.

There is nothing inevitable about the Good Boss or the Horrible Boss theory; but it does need to be recognised that they are in fundamental conflict with each other. There is competition for ideas, and we have a choice. The deepest irony is that the theory that a Horrible Boss is good for business is perpetrated by some of the most principled and well respected institutions in the western world.

[i] Tragedies of Globalization: the Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops’, China Labor Watch report, July 2011



  1. The ability to make money, meet monetary & production goals is still the basis by which most people are promoted throughout the world.- or alternately, offering jobs and promotions because of a relationship rather than skill. These are factors that promote poor people managers. Employees are still considered only in terms of producers rather than a capital asset in which to invest. While training employees well is critical to any company’s success, training managers does not seem to be held in the same field of importance.

    I have yet to have any training that teaches me how to be interested in my employees’ ideas and interests in 20 years of management experience. – that is a characteristic I already possessed. My own bosses have demonstrated little interest in my ideas of how to keep good employees interested in staying within the department or company. In fact, most corporate structures and policies provide so little career growth, that great employees, who provide consistently valuable work, usually leave to gain more money, more growth and more learning opportunities in other companies. This has been of all of the industries and jobs in which I have worked.

    So I listen to my employees, encourage them to express their ideas and discontent, and try to provide them with education and experience that will support their career growth whether they stay in my department or leave the company. I encourage them to take every opportunity to put “more tools in their back pockets to take with them wherever they go!”

    Wish I could find a boss like me!

    Comment by Valerie Iravani — August 6, 2011 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

  2. Great comment – thanks Valerie, and congratulations. I often think that if the finance department could display the actual costs of bad managers, then training in people-management skills would become compulsory! But you can’t measure a hypothetical – eg the opportunity cost of a talented person leaving, so we should become culturally less obsessed with measurement and just train the managers anyway.

    Comment by felipewh — August 7, 2011 @ 7:27 am | Reply

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