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The managerial trap

Sometimes getting rid of bad leaders is more important than finding great ones

By Frank Domurad

In their efforts to implement Evidence-Based Practices (EBP), the heads of correctional agencies spend an inordinate amount of time trying to develop “new” forms of leadership in their ranks. In particular, they seek to convert their managers and supervisors from practicing a traditional transactional model of leadership, with its emphasis on rules and processes, to doing business in a collaborative transformational way, with its emphasis on strategic vision and staff inspiration.

While such initiatives are certainly important elements in the accomplishment of evidence-based organizational change, in isolation they may be a pathway to failure. As Stanford Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton summarize in their research on leadership, effective leadership rarely accounts for more than 10% of the difference between the best and the worst organizations. Most leaders have received the same education and training and come from the same backgrounds. As a result, they generally tend to make similar decisions in similar environments.

For Pfeffer and Sutton, the real nub of the leadership problem is a failure to recognize and address the fact that bad leaders can quickly destroy any attempt to create good leadership and, in the process, can make the possibility of organizational change moot. Sutton points to research demonstrating that what he calls “jerk” managers are apparently widespread in organizations across the private, public, and non-profit sectors. According to one study of 700 representative Michigan residents in the year 2000, close to one-third had experienced mistreatment in the workplace at the hands of incompetent and inconsiderate managers. In a 2003 report, 461 nurses had received verbal abuse at the hands of physicians that had left them feeling “attacked, devalued and humiliated” in the previous month. Pfeffer and Sutton contend that over 50 years of research has shown that a handful of bad leaders, when left unchecked and unchallenged in an organization, can easily destroy productivity, ruin staff morale, and destroy any hope of encouraging discretionary effort and innovation on the part of employees. In fact, some 60 to 75% of employees see their immediate supervisor as the “worst and most stressful aspect of their job.”

So what can be done about this destructive managerial phenomenon? Actually, there is a very simple answer. As Sutton argues, all an organization has to do is to introduce a “no jerk” rule in its operations.

Here are three examples: Plante and Moran, one of the country’s largest public accounting firms, has incorporated the following language into its employee manual: “The goal is a ‘jerk-free’ workplace at this accounting firm. The staff is encouraged to live by the Golden Rule.” At Barclay’s Capital, Chief Operating Officer Rich Ricci states, “We have a no-jerk rule around here. Hotshots who alienate colleagues are told to change or leave.” And at Southwest Airlines, when interviewing pilots, former CEO Herb Kelleher used to ask his receptionist at the end of the interview how the candidate treated her. If s/he had been nasty and disrespectful, s/he was “immediately rejected. You can’t treat people that way and be the kind of leader we want.”

In short, if correctional agencies want effective managers and supervisors to inspire and motivate their staff, then they need to pay attention to what the research actually says about leadership. They need to avoid the managerial trap of focusing only on the creation of good leaders while ignoring the eradication of “jerk” managers and supervisors who are doing terrible harm in their agencies. As Pfeffer and Sutton summarized, in terms of organizational, evidence-based change, “avoiding bad leaders may be a crucial goal, perhaps more important than getting great leaders.”

Frank Domurad is Vice President of The Carey Group and a nationally recognized expert in Evidence-Based Practices (EBP). He has worked with community and institutional correctional agencies at the Federal, state and local levels across the country to implement Evidence-Based Practices, including strategic planning, assessment, human resource development, program implementation and training. He has written extensively on evidence-based policy and practice, evidence-based management, cognitive-behavioral interventions, organizational development and change management, organizational culture, team building and collaboration, professional assessment/DACUM, strategic planning, e-learning, technology and public safety, and terrorism and homeland security.

Domurad joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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