You’ve probably heard it said that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bad bosses.It’s a common leadership maxim—often issued as a word of warning to those stepping into leadership: a bad leader can ruin even the best of jobs. But is the opposite also true? Can a good boss lead to less turnover? And what are the qualities that employees think make for a good leader—or a bad one?
In a study among Americans in the workplace, done in partnership with Leadercast, Barna Group found that two in five people work for someone they consider a “bad” leader. When asked to attribute positive and negative characteristics to their supervisors, these 40% of workers assign at least four of the six negative attributes to their boss. Another two in five workers (40%) say their leader displays one to three of those negative attributes, classifying that leader as “average.” In contrast, only one in five workers (19%) assigns only positive attributes to their leaders, qualifying them as “good” bosses.
Among workers, Gen Xers seem to be the most disgruntled age group toward their supervisor—45% of them say they work for a bad boss, while only 39% of Millennials would say so and an even fewer 35% of Boomers are unhappy with their bosses.
And, while workplace leadership may be the most personal concern for people, nine in 10 Americans also say they believe the nation itself is facing a crisis of leadership.
The Anatomy of a Bad Leader
So what do people say makes for a bad leader? Workers most often identified three complaints when it comes to poor leadership—at least three in 10 Americans say their supervisor lacks clear vision and direction (32%), that the poor leadership at work is the most stressful part of the job (33%) and that their boss makes them feel controlled, manipulative or defensive (31%).
Additionally, one-quarter of workers (25%) feel their career progress is limited because of their boss’s poor leadership. About one in six (17%) say they would prefer a new boss over a raise. A majority (62%) say they wouldn’t follow their boss if their paycheck didn’t depend on it.
Is it true then? When employees have a bad supervisor, are they more likely to leave their job? Simply put: yes. While only one in five respondents are actively looking to leave their organization because of their supervisor, when you consider who is planning to look for a new job in the next year, the numbers tell the story. Employees who don’t respect their leaders—who classify their supervisor as a bad one—are more than twice as likely as those with a good supervisor to say they plan to look for a new job within the next year. More than six in 10 of those who work for a bad boss (61%) plan to be on the job hunt this next year, while less than three in 10 of those who work for a good boss (27%) say the same.
A Good Leader Makes a Big Difference Too
There’s a flip side to the negative effects of working for a bad leader: for all the harm a bad supervisor can do, a good leader can do a lot of good. Good supervisors create settings that have less turnover, a better work environment and more inspired workers.
Employees who work for good leaders are much more likely than those with bad leaders to feel positively about their work—according to a variety of indicators. More than nine in 10 (91%), for example, say they enjoy going to work each day, compared to only six in 10 of those who have a bad leader (62%). Similarly, more than eight in 10 say their work makes a positive different in the world, compared to only six in 10 of those who have a bad boss (63%). Almost three-quarters of those with good bosses (74%)—compared to six in 10 of those with bad bosses (61%)—say they feel empowered to be a leader at work.
On the other hand, those with good bosses are also much less likely than those with bad bosses to indicate unhappiness with their work and their workplace. Only one-third (33%) of those with good bosses (compared to nearly six in 10 (58%) of those with bad bosses) say there are often distracted at work. While a full two-thirds of employees with bad bosses say they feel a lot of negative energy in their workplace (66%) and that people often misrepresent truth at their workplace (65%), less than one in five of employees with good bosses would say the same (15% and 19%, respectively).
While very few workers (19%) chose only positive qualities for their boss—without indicating any of the negative qualities—most people do have some good things to say about their leaders. Among the positive qualities workers point to in their boss, they most often value mutual respect, safety and loyalty. More than six in 10 employees (61%) say they would be disappointed if their boss left the company tomorrow. More than seven in 10 (73%) say they can bring concerns to their boss without fear of criticism, knowing they will be heard. A similar number (71%) say they have a lot of respect and admiration for their boss and a full 77% say their boss respects them as an individual and not just as someone who produces results.
What the Research Means
“This study shows some important ways leaders can empower their employees,” says David Kinnaman, who is president of Barna Group and directed the study on the effects of leadership. “At the same time, the results show just how hard it can be to work for a crummy leader—and how easily one can fall into bad leadership habits.
“It’s impossible to improve what you don’t assess, so this research stresses the importance of self-awareness and feedback systems that allow leaders to face the truth about their leadership. Being a self-aware leader will help to improve your leadership culture. The people on your team will thank you for it—or they will be likely to leave your team.”
About the Research
The research for this report included 1,026 online surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults, ages 18 and older in the United States. The survey was conducted from February 25, 2014 through March 3, 2014. The margin of error for a sample of this size is +/-3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.
Respondents were asked to agree and disagree with the following questions to define their direct supervisor as “good,” “average” or “bad.”
(Qa) I have a lot of respect and admiration for my boss
(Qb) I can bring concerns to my boss without fear of criticism, knowing that I will be heard
(Qc) if my boss left our company tomorrow, I would be disappointed
(Qd) I would follow my boss even if my paycheck didn’t depend on it
(Qe) my boss respects me as an individual and not just as someone who produces results
(Qf) my boss lacks clear vision and direction
(Qg) my boss communicateds in a way that often makes me feel controlled, manipulated or defensive
(Qh) I would prefer to have a new boss over a raise
(Qi) my career progress is limited because of my boss’s poor leadership
(Qj) I’m actively looking to leave my organization because of the leader directly above me
(Qk) the poor leadership at my workplace is the most stressful part of my job
Each respondent received one point for disagree (Qa-Qe) and one point for agree Qf-Qk) for a total score out of 11.
bad = counts 4-11
average = counts 1-3
good = counts=0
The research was commissioned by Leadercast.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2015.