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Beware the Ultra-Nice Boss

A passive boss can wreak just as much havoc in the workplace as a bullying one.

A New York City human resources manager is often greeted on Monday mornings by a boss who can't wait to chat animatedly about her children. The boss wants to be every employee's friend and avoids the role of bullying "bad cop," which she leaves to the other managing partner.

Her outwardly friendly demeanor may sound like a relief from the imperious micromanagers and petty tyrants so often depicted in popular culture and complained about around the watercooler. Yet this human resources manager claims that her genial but disengaged boss is actually more difficult to work with than the company's micromanaging partner.

"She's never forthcoming about what she needs," says the H.R. manager, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons. "She wants you to know what you're doing without telling you what she wants, and when you ask too many questions, she gets defensive. Then if you get it wrong, she barks at you and you're taken aback."

Passive and disengaged bosses who chronically undermanage don't get nearly as much public attention as bullying bosses who bulldoze their way through the office. But according to some business consultants and experts, they can be every bit as damaging to a company's morale and productivity.

Bruce Tulgan, a consultant, trainer, and author of It's Okay to Be the Boss, calls undermanagement "an epidemic" and finds many managers intimidated by a culture of political correctness, red tape, and potential lawsuits. He sees nonconfrontational leaders who want to be everyone's friend as responsible for more workplace mistakes than those supervised by a harsh taskmaster.

Tulgan says he sees undermanagement as an affliction that impacts almost all organizations today. (The U.S. military is the rare exception, he notes.) Typically, undermanagement starts with a boss who isn't engaged enough to know what's going on with his or her employees. These bosses may say they're overwhelmed by too much work to individually coach or supervise their workers, or they may just be fearful of looking like a bully or the bad guy.

"Nine out of 10 [workplace] problems that are not caused by God are caused by the lack of engagement on the part of a manager," Tulgan says.

Disengaged managers fail to ask the right questions and let small problems fester until disaster strikes. Projects don't get finished on time, staff members drift along without direction, goals are unspecified and go unmet. Tulgan argues that, ironically, ignoring small problems can sometimes lead to the very confrontations that passive managers try to avoid.

"I don't understand how someone can be in management without being able to deal with some conflict," says a former supervisor in the New York City health-care industry who complains that her current boss wants to avoid seeming like a bully at all costs. "She may not be punitive, but being passive is just as frustrating."

This boss has a largely disgruntled staff with problems that don't seem to get resolved. She avoids confronting difficult employees, and the resulting laissez-faire environment has led to another worker's trying to fill the leadership vacuum, creating even greater chaos.

That's just the kind of situation that Ray Blanchette, the new C.E.O. of Joe's Crab Shack, a Houston-based seafood chain with 120 restaurants, wanted to avoid when he took over the company in May. In August, he brought in Tulgan to run a one-day boot camp for his regional managers. The message Blanchette wanted conveyed was that these managers needed to be more hands-on with their employees, giving clearer direction and providing more personal mentoring.

"When Bruce told them it's okay to be the boss, it was like an epiphany," Blanchette says. "You're not just telling them what to do. You're not just trying to be a pain in the ass."

Blanchette says he had less turnover than he'd expected in a new executive regime and didn't mind losing the employees who were put off by the newly engaged, more aggressive managers.

To be sure, some workplace experts still believe the primary problem with bosses is their insensitive, aggressive behavior.

"If anything, the workplace is more confrontational than ever," says Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a research group and consulting firm based in Washington. "Management always blames the employee [in these cases], saying it's a perceptual problem or that the employee can't accept criticism."

Based on his research, Namie sees the workplace as a far different place from the one described by the undermanagement believers. He cites a September Zogby International survey that found that 37 percent of American workers (an estimated 54 million people) say they have been bullied at work, while 49 percent say they have witnessed bullying tactics.

Namie and his group have helped introduce anti-bullying legislation that he says would serve the same purpose as antidiscrimination laws. So far, none have made it into law, although bills in New York, Vermont, and Washington are still active.

Namie insists that he's not campaigning against executives who make the occasional politically incorrect comment or have boorish personalities. Rather, he's aiming at repeat offenders who "inflict arbitrary cruelty, command unrealistic deadlines, and target a few for misery."

Ben Dattner, a principal of Dattner Consulting, a Manhattan-based firm with both large and small corporate clients, says that in the current workplace climate, it's difficult for both employers and employees to know how they should conduct themselves. But he finds that the more effective bosses are usually the ones that provide more-not less-oversight of their employees.

"I think people want more direction and want to know what their boss thinks is right or not right," Dattner says. "Even if it's negative feedback, or even if the answer is no. In my experience, it's preferable to be more emotionally engaged, even if that means being negative."
 

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