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Updated 27 March 2014

The boss from hell?

Shouting, screaming, swearing. Oh yes, and then there are the impossible deadlines and the blame-shifting. Is he or she the boss from hell?

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Speak to your friends – most people have had at least one boss who could have been the sole subject of a psychiatric conference.

A quick whip-round among associates revealed a story of a boss who put chocolates in the pigeonholes of his two favourite employees every Thursday – in full view of the rest of the staff. Another story tells of a boss who was only seen three times in the entire time the person concerned worked at that particular company. Then there was another one who liked to tickle his nose with a feather constantly and another who was seen doing his shopping in full drag.

And stories abound of unfair dismissals, bullying, shouting, favouritism, inconsistencies and just plain lack of professionalism.

But then fortunately there are also the stories about good and kind bosses, who encourage their employees, are fair and consistent and do not take out their personal problems on those who work for them.

Being a boss is not easy. Having to deal with finances, responsibility, a potentially difficult work force, having to be a mediator, dealing with other people's personal problems, retrenchments – the list is endless. And the stress can be enormous.

So are you a boss? What are the signs of your being a problem boss? The following signs, according to Ilse Terblanche, Cape Town psychologist, could point to there being problems in your domain:

Large staff turnover. If people come and go without having good reasons, such as a spouse being transferred, or wanting to change professions, there is a problem. If your staff start resigning despite not having other jobs, there is something serious underfoot.

Negative assessments. Most companies have annual assessments of their staff. If you get thrashed the minute the assessments are anonymous, but to your face people seem to be civil, there might be a severe problem with your management style or general attitude. The problem might, however, lie with the maturity of staff members, in which case you need to address this.

Passive aggression. This is usually shown in a lack of co-operation, such as a refusal to take part in staff discussions, non-attendance of staff functions, minimum compliance with orders, obstructionist behaviour and a lack of team playing.

Factions on the staff. In any large group of employees, it is inevitable that certain social groups will form. This is entirely normal. Some of your employees may even become friends with one another. But if there are bitter, opposing factions, it may indicate a lack of trust in the judgment and fairness of decisions that come from the top. People are jockeying for position, because they feel they cannot trust their boss to treat them fairly. Where a boss is ineffectual or unfair, much of the energy, which should go into upping production, can go into infighting and staff politics.

Work-to-rule. If one person on the staff does the work-to-rule thing (This is not in my job description), that person is nursing some private grievance. If the majority of the staff does so, there is a larger problem – and it could be you and your management style. Not being willing to go the extra mile is usually only done when people feel that the company they work for is abusing them in some way – either underpaying them, overworking them, or subjecting them to unfair or untenable working conditions. Most importantly, if the boss works to rule, the employees may be following this example.

Low productivity. Frustrated and unmotivated employees are unproductive employees. If people are not happy in their jobs, they also feel resentment towards the company that employs them and they will not make an effort to up their production. Low productivity is a sure sign of autocratic and ineffectual management – or under-trained staff or a party in the company who is  trying to undermine you.

Frequent complaints. Happy employees do not complain about minor things constantly. Once vicious fights start breaking out about minor things such as the type of coffee bought for the coffee club or the type of toilet paper that is used in the staff toilets, there is usually a problem that is much larger. And which employees are hesitant to mention. And it could be you. If official complaints get lodged regularly, or members of staff constantly demand to see those above you, you need to take a good look at yourself.

High amount of sick leave. If there are constantly people taking a day off here and a day there and you are pretty certain there is nothing wrong with them, they either have personal problems of which you know nothing, or there is a problem or a person at work, which they are trying to avoid, because they find it upsetting. On every staff, there is usually one person who abuses their sick leave, but when more and more people start doing it, there is usually a bigger problem.

Sudden silence when you enter a room. It could just be a lull in the conversation, but it could also be that you were the topic under discussion. And people don't suddenly keep quiet if they've been saying nice things.

Unpleasant atmosphere at work. It could be that you have one or two bad apples among your staff, that are poisoning the work force. Or it could just be that people are unhappy with your decisions, with your appointments or with your management style. Work is not a social venue, but it is so much nicer when there is a pleasant atmosphere, rather than a polarised back-biting situation.

Little co-operation or teamwork. If getting people to do things or make changes feels like dragging a dead horse through soft sand, there is a problem. Have you spoken to the people who actually do the job to find out if they have suggestions? Did you take them seriously? Most people do not take kindly to top-down decisions. If people feel they have not been consulted, they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about a new decision or project.

Nervous employees. If people are jumpy, it is usually because they feel their boss is unpredictable and not to be trusted. They probably get shouted at – often for no justifiable reason and they don't trust whoever is in charge. If it's you, the time for some soul-searching and possibly a management course or two. The only way to manage people effectively in the long run is to get their willing co-operation. That doesn't mean that you're not in charge. On the contrary. But the way in which you do things is so very important.

Misinterpretation of instructions. If one of your employees keeps on getting things wrong, there may be problem with that one person. But if everyone constantly misinterprets what you say, it could be that you don't give good, clear instructions. Try writing them down – in this way there can be no confusion. Often managers have an idea in their heads, but are unable to convey it clearly to employees.

Disrespectful behaviour. If a large number of your employees are 'off' to you, or simply disrespectful, you need to find out why. Remember that respect is something that is earned, not something that is part and parcel of any position. Also remember never to underestimate the power of one toxic, problematic employee who could turn staff members against you for their own gain. If you suspect that this is happening, take action immediately.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24)

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