Bosses must distinguish harassment from leadership

Companies must review if leadership abilities are even being considered in promotions, and train leaders, which despite the initial cost, would prove more cost effective in the long run. (iStockphoto)
Companies must review if leadership abilities are even being considered in promotions, and train leaders, which despite the initial cost, would prove more cost effective in the long run. (iStockphoto)


We tend to accept intemperate behaviour of bosses as normal but this is not alright. Leadership is different from harassment, and there are better ways of getting workers to function effectively.

In the initial years of working life, discussing bosses is like a party game where each one tries to one-up on whose reporting manager is worse. We have tried different ringtones, followed the heads-down approach, laughed at their jokes louder than they merited and cowered down in team meetings, hoping no part of the wrath would come onto us.

Time goes by, and you get used to the carrot-and-stick method. We rise up the corporate ladder, feel the change in equations with the seniors, and often call them “colleagues" because by now we have learnt how to expect and ebb their anger. We advise the juniors that this is part of the process and one must develop a thick skin and do time.

One assumed that a boss losing control is par for the course, similar to adolescence, around when everyone must find their way.

But this outlook is the result of a systematic failure such as with ragging in colleges. It is unnecessary, prohibited in many places but accepted. A diversity expert told me that employees consider harassment as a sexual one but a screaming boss is accepted and allowed as well as normalized. There are grades of work harassment (non-sexual), and it seems unless the senior hits the absolute alarming red zone, all others are norm.

Who is to be blamed? The junior and middle managers who are afraid to get sidelined if they protest? The company which promoted high performers as bosses and not those with leadership qualities? The lack of training on how to get work done when targets are high and many team members fumble? The lack of trust where having each other’s back is a rarity? Or the belief that a thick skin is necessary to succeed?

There is also an institutionalised feeling of deference ingrained to bow down to those who hold higher posts than us. For many, the initial phase in offices is like a student-teacher equation—questioning the behaviour (not her/his experience or work) of the senior is considered sacrilege.

So how should pressure be applied when time is running out, targets are unmet and the boss knows (and may be right) that not everyone in the team is chasing the goal?

The answer is not by screaming. Everyone in the team will never give their best, and all employees will at some point surely falter. But when chasing high targets, it is the leader’s job to know who among them will meet the expectations and who will give up the chase. We have had seniors who have pushed us harder without raising their voice. A one-on-one interaction meant the guillotine often. Swift, bloodless and not a squeak.

A senior executive had once said that if managers treat the juniors as children, then they have created a kindergarten where there will be tantrums. If the message goes out, right from the time they join, that non-performers will be weeded out unless their productivity improves, some amount of tentativeness sets in. It can help the employee map his/her work better. But there too is a fine line because one doesn’t want employees buckling under the fear of retrenchment.

Then a company has to look at the basic definition of who is a boss? The rush to retain talent mostly translates into high performers getting promoted in swift succession, which means India Inc has many bosses who were never trained or fit to be one. Their way of being a leader was treating the team members the way they were spoken to, and the carrot-and-stick principle forms this vicious cycle.

The redressal mechanism was never very strong in corporate India but earlier there was no social media as well. It is unfortunate that employees are looking at social media as the grievance cell. The anonymous posts and videos of bosses yelling at their teams expose the cracks at the very core of an organization. That an employee finds it preferable to take the risk of posting on social media—knowing that one can be traced—than heading to a harassment committee, needs the firm to overhaul its systems.

Do some profiles need more aggressive leaders? No. Targets are there in every role and while some roles have more immediate goal-oriented key result areas (KRAs), the rewards are aligned for immediate gratification. The seniors have held similar roles earlier but they are rarely trained to see if assertion rather than aggression can get the work done.

Companies irrespective of size need coaches and training programs on interpersonal equations, and these need to be measured over a period of time. The investments are a dent on the coffers of a firm but will be far more inexpensive in the long-term than any damage control exercise.

And finally, the boss must be allowed an exit route. Not all want to be bosses but we are hardly taught to refuse senior posts on grounds that we are not fit yet. Growth and success for us in the corporate ladder is linear and that notion must change. The need to leave a legacy behind as the boss who got the work done at any cost should not be aspirational in any firm. Bosses do not have to play good cop and bad cop. In fact, they do not have to play any cop.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App