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Leading the Lazy Chapter Six - Bad Supervisors and Body Odor

"Companies used to be able to function with autocratic bosses. We don’t live in that world anymore."

—Rosabeth Moss Kanter

The olfactory nerve is one of a pair of nerves that is 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. Some people today do not realize or simply do not care about the aroma they exude for the rest of us. They cannot smell it, so how might anyone else?

Similarly, most supervisors do not show up at work and consciously intend to be bad supervisors. They must have developed some sort of leadership fatigue for them 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. A more complicated issue is discovering what otherwisenormal people do 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 he or she no longer considers the behavior of the supervisor abnormal. People learn to tolerate (or become fatigued by) the yelling, screaming, and lack of consistency from thesupervisor. Also, the supervisor slowly becomes unaware of the negative impact he or she is similarly providing the rest of the team. Eventually, the supervisor’s bad activities become habits. Once this occurs, the habits become the new normal, and the result is a bad supervisor who is oblivious to the negative environment he or she is creating for everyone.

I have seen evidence of this when asking individuals to list characteristics of good and bad supervision on flip charts. Having trained many individuals, I notice that we are 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, orinconsistencies 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 unknown or 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 it is significant. Prolonged periods of stress and the resulting behavior can eventually become the new normal.

Also, 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 those who avoid conflict at all cost and rarely intervene on behalf of those who have no power.

Bad supervisors do indeed exist. But they 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 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 is that person to suddenly have the epiphany that he or she stinks? Bad supervisory habits are no different from personal hygiene habits. This accumulation of bad habits over time will eventually make people decide one day that this person really does stink as a supervisor.  Finish this article...

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