Bad bosses and the IT managers who unknowingly imitate them

Sooner or later, many of us reach an age when we realize to our horror that we are turning into our parents. For IT managers and their peers it could be worse – you could be turning into the CEO.

In a recent article published in the McKinsley Quarterly, Why good bosses tune into their people (registration required), Stanford management professor Bob Sutton discusses how effective leaders give straight answers, recognize team contributions and shield their staff from unnecessary distractions. This is all good advice. What I found interesting, however, were some of his personal observations about the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways in which employees mirror their boss’s behavior. Take this anecdote, in which he asked a group of workers and their tyrannical senior vice-president boss to brainstorm on potential products for 20 minutes.

As they brainstormed, I counted the number of comments made by each team member and the number of times each interrupted someone else and was interrupted in turn. The senior vice-president contributed about 65 per cent of the comments, interrupted others at least 20 times, and was never interrupted. When I had him leave the room, I asked his subordinates to estimate the results, and they did so accurately. Then the senior vice-president returned. He recalled making about 25 per cent of the comments, interrupting others perhaps three times, and being interrupted three or four times. When I showed him the results and explained that his direct reports had estimated him far more accurately, he was flabbergasted and annoyed.

I’ll bet. More telling was Sutton’s discovery that when a boss like this leaves the room, the next person in command tended to behave the same way. And the third in command follows suit. This says a lot about why “tone at the top” and executive support is so critical to effective IT initiatives. I wonder, however, how often IT managers have a built-in modeling detector that tells them when they’re aping the less-than-attractive qualities of senior management?

Think about how IT professionals are often portrayed: the sometimes ill-informed but garrulous “no” people who flaunt their technical expertise while going at lengths to explain why something cannot be done, at least the way users want it. Some of this may be a soft skills issue, of course, but shouldn’t the soft skills trickle down from somewhere? Or someone?

Although they may not always get the respect they deserve, IT managers do wield power and influence over employees, whether they are direct reports or not. If they are not always bosses, they share the same capacity for absorbing the attitudes of those they work under, and developing their self-awareness in this area can only help them. “The most effective bosses devote enormous effort to understanding how their moods, quirks, skills and actions affect their followers’ performance and humanity.” How much effort do IT managers, among other employees, evaluate the impact from their end? This is a new kind of human capital management – one in which the best technology professionals will need to become highly proficient.

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