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Does your boss stink?
11/10/2017 John Grubbs
Leaders extinct

The olfactory nerve is one of a pair of nerves that are responsible for our sense of smell.  Olfactory fatigue, also known as odor fatigue, is the temporary, normal inability to distinguish a particular odor after a prolonged exposure to that airborne compound.  When it comes to body odor from absent or poor hygiene, individuals may be completely unaware of the strong environmental contribution they are making for others around them.  While everyone else around this individual gets to share the odor, the person responsible is completely oblivious to the stench.  While certainly a necessity prior to modern hygiene standards, there are people today that do not realize or simply do not care about the aroma they exude for the rest of us.  They cannot smell it so how can anyone else?

Similarly, most supervisors do not show up at work and consciously intend to be a bad supervisor.  They must have developed some sort of leadership fatigue in order to “not” realize the horrible impact they are making on everyone around them.

Having conducted thousands of classes over the years, I am convinced that most people know the basics of good supervision when they see it or are asked to describe it.  Something else more complicated is causing what might be considered to be normal people to become such horrible supervisors.

If a subordinate is exposed to a bad supervisor, the initial reaction is obvious.  Just like the olfactory nerve a subordinate will immediately detect (sense) the supervisor as unusual or in some cases horrible.  Over time however, the subordinate can become fatigued to the point that they no longer consider the behavior of the supervisor as abnormal.  They learn to tolerate (or become fatigued) the yelling, screaming, and lack of consistency from the supervisor.  Additionally, the supervisor slowly becomes unaware of the negative impact he or she is providing the rest of the team in the same way.  Eventually, the bad activities of the supervisor become habits.  Once this occurs, the habits become the new normal and the result is a bad supervisor that is oblivious to the contribution they are making for everyone around them.

Evidence of this can easily be seen when asking individuals to list characteristics of good and bad supervision on flip charts.  Having trained many individuals, I notice that we are very consistent about what makes both good and bad supervision.  I have never had an individual state that communicating, being fair, earning trust, or giving positive feedback are characteristics of bad supervisors.  Likewise, I have never had anyone state that verbal abuse, favoritism, or inconsistencies are characteristics of good supervisors.  So how is it going so wrong?  If we know what it takes to be good and what it takes to be bad, why are there so many bad supervisors out there?

The “X” factor is context.  Theory is one thing, while application of theory can be quite different.  In the workplace there are many contextual situations that change our behavior.  The most common is stress.  Our personality changes during periods of stress.  For some the change is minor while for others that change is significant.  Prolonged periods of stress and the resulting behavior can eventually become the new normal.

Additionally, some managers are apathetic and ignore these behavior changes by supervisors.  This inaction by “velvet” managers can eventually allow the bad behavior from supervisors to become permanent.  Velvet managers are characterized by those that avoid conflict at all cost and rarely intervenes on behalf of those that have no power. 

Bad supervisors do indeed exist.  The do not wake every morning with a desire to fail the leadership test.  They may very well believe that they are doing an appropriate or even an acceptable job.  If no one questions the methodology then why should they change?  It is no different from body odor.  If an individual’s hygiene habits have slowly become poor and no one comments or complains, how likely are they to suddenly have the epiphany that they stink?  Bad supervisory habits are no different from personal hygiene habits.  This accumulation of bad habits over time that will eventually make those around them decide one day that this person really does stink as a supervisor. 

Education and training creates the awareness that a problem may exist.  If you are not regularly training your supervisors, you are more than likely reinforcing bad habits that make them stink.  Sadly, your people will pay the short term price.  You organization, however, will pay dearly in the long run by losing the best and brightest talent on your team.

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