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The Origin of Bad Supervisors

The Origin of Bad Supervisors

By John Grubbs

The most common reason people quit a job is a bad relationship with a direct supervisor.  Hollywood’s movie satire “Horrible Bosses” contains enough reality to be relatable to most people at some point in our lives.  How did bad supervisors become so common in the work place?  Why is it easier to remember the horrible bosses?

Bad bosses are not merely like people; some good and some bad.  Bad supervision is a learned behavior. It is the manifestation of generations that were never taught exactly how to lead or supervise others.  The disproportionate amount of bad supervisors that yell and scream at employees is not representative of humans in general.  When surveyed most people know how a good boss should behave yet so many bad supervisors are indelibly etched into our memories.

The beginning of bad bosses can be traced all the way back to industrialization and the migration of hard working farmers to the growing cities.  These tough and work-hardened individuals gave up everything to start a new life in the emerging factories of the early 1900s.  Workers and supervisors were expected to continue the same long hours as they had experienced on the farms that gave most Americans the sustenance needed to survive.  Good supervisors were not necessary in a factory that had an unlimited supply of workers who could make more money in the city than was possible as a farmhand or sharecropper.  The many poor were eager to find something other than a dirt farm and willingly traded one meager existence for another in the company of many others attempting to better the lives of their families.

The Great Depression contributed significantly to the common method of supervision.  The attitude toward the worker changes when you have far more workers than you do positions to fill.  At twenty-five percent unemployment, it becomes easy to take people for granted and not develop the necessary relationships that promote a healthy work environment.  In this environment, people become interchangeable pawns that can be easily replaced.  Workers become conditioned slowly over time to have low expectations from others in the chain of command.  As time passes the bond between the worker and supervisor becomes very weak.

The emersion of the entire world into global war and a nation that stopped everything to win that war also made a significant contribution to the current method of supervision.  World War II took our peace time factories and created a war machine like no other in history.  Nearly every part of the United States saw an economic boom as factory after factory built tanks, airplanes, bombs, and all the necessary rations to win an unprecedented war.  An entire generation of Americans either fought in the war or worked in factories to support the war.  Once again supervision suffered. 

The workforce, already conditioned to accept a slight connection to supervisors, was now exposed to a more rigorous and strict military style of supervision.  This became very common in the factories that supported the war effort while the struggle of the recent Great Depression was still fresh in the minds of most workers.  They were simply glad to have a good paying job and would readily overlook a bad supervisor. Moreover, why would any company spend money to teach people how to be a good supervisor?

When World War II ended, we experienced one of the most significant periods of economic growth in U.S. history.  During the ensuing “baby boom” parents taught children the tough lessons they learned during the depression.  They taught children to appreciate and be loyal to a job.  Stick it out and outlast the bad supervisors.  They also influenced their children to never be perceived as someone who bounces around from job to job to job. 

This period of economic growth (1950s and 1960s) was also created by the fact that all other industrialized nations were destroyed during the war.  Imagine what is must have been like during what I call the “Leave it to Beaver Era” in our country.  We didn’t have to do very much or be very good in order to be successful.  An abundant source of very loyal workers (that would stay with your company no matter how bad you treated them) became coupled with a little or no global competition for the goods and services we made.  Wow, could it get any easier?  Why spend any of the company’s valuable resources on supervisor training?  If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!  So the baby boomers, all ninety million of them, began to invade the workplace and developing supervisors to really lead others became an extreme rarity.

Soon the United States was introduced to the 1970s method for supervision selection.  Companies would line up the largest, ugliest, smelliest men (women need not apply) and give them hard hats.  Whoever could throw that hard hat and at the same time yell, curse, and scream the loudest was selected to be the supervisor.  Born was the period of ruling by intimidation that was so common in heavy industries.  Unfortunately, management completely misunderstood the difference between fear and respect.  During this period, the workforce was dominated by the two generations that would tolerate and learn to accept the negative supervisor.  We began the days of “check your brain at the gate – we pay you to work, not think” and “I don’t need to appreciate my workers – they get a paycheck” and “we just can’t find good people these days”.

And so the self-fulfilling prophecy did become a reality.  In the 1980s, we saw the culmination of decades that focused little or nothing on the development of leaders in the workplace.  We saw the beginning of our descent as the only game in the manufacturing world and we gave birth to a new and very large generation that was going to put a stop to the supervisory methods of the past.  We did not know at the time that those 1980s babies would eventually be known as Generation Y. 

The 1990s were a fog created by the emergence of the internet and as the younger workers started coming of age, we had no clue how they would change the world and more importantly the supervisors that were going to be asked to lead them.  These children of the digital age, raised by the helicopter parents of the 1990s, were given more than any generation in the past.  More access to information and knowledge, more technology in one had than had existed for thousands of years, and more opportunity to be successful than any generation past.  These new workers do not define life by the job they hold and do not value work as the epicenter of their lives.  The job is merely a necessity to accommodate the instant gratification they have grown accustomed to.  They prove this lack of emphasis on job and career by the short tenure that is maintained on a given job.  On average, Generation Y’s average tenure on a given job is sixteen to eighteen months.

The 2000s realized the beginning of the Baby Boomer exodus from the workplace. Turning 62 in 2008, the Baby Boomers began to make preparations for retirement.  The chickens have come home to roost as the old saying goes.   Meaning, our lack of emphasis on developing supervisors has now become a major challenge for most organizations.  What worked or was tolerated in the past simply will not work today.  As we lose as much as twelve thousand baby boomers to retirement each day, they are being replaced by the second largest generation (Generation Y) with a remarkably different tolerance level for undeveloped or underdeveloped supervisors.  Known as “vapors” (here one minute and gone the next) the new generation of workers will simply quit with absolutely no remorse when confronted by a “bully” supervisor.  While generations past would tolerate or outlast a bad supervisor, this generation will not.

The message is very clear.  The bad supervisors that are still out there must be developed or removed from the positions they occupy.  The new workforce is too large to ignore.  It is estimated that by the year 2020, forty percent of all workers in the United States will be Generation Y.  How prepared is your organization to lead this new and demanding workforce?

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