Bad bosses: Another reason for the coming ‘great resignation’

Are bad bosses helping motivate the 'great resignation'? . Getty Images

As millions of Canadians contemplate leaving the workforce or switching jobs in the wake of pandemic-related epiphanies, there’s been much buzz recently about a “great resignation” looming on the horizon.

Indeed, a quarter of us are considering a career change, according to The Mental Health Index report compiled in March by Lifeworks (formerly Morneau Shepell), a Toronto-based human resources company.

In my last column, I wrote about how many Canadians are opting to become self-employed because it means “independence, freedom and being my own boss.” This dovetails with one reason for Canada’s expected resignation boom, which is that people are reprioritizing their own needs, mental health, interests, values and loved ones after a long period of reflection brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.

There’s another reason that’s likely contributing to mass resignations: bad bosses.

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Sure, only 10 per cent of respondents to Lifeworks’ mental health report said their relationship with their manager got worse during the pandemic. But this group also has the least favourable mental health score — nearly 19 points lower than those who said their employee-manager relationship stayed the same.

Read more: Young Canadians and the future of work: There’s a method to our madness

Meanwhile, self-employed Canadians have the highest mental health score of all groups. What’s more, a new RBC report said the number of non-employed Canadians who left their jobs because of “dissatisfaction” increased “significantly” in June — nearly triple the level in June 2020.

Translation: Bad bosses suck the life force out of you.

But you already knew that. Who among us hasn’t had an incompetent or toxic manager?

When assessing my 10 years of full-time work experience to date, I’m hard-pressed to identify even a handful of my direct managers who were grounded, capable leaders. Granted, my inexperience at the time probably didn’t help my dynamic with these managers. But as a former manager who’s learned from past mistakes — both my own and my previous boss’ — I know the main reason why I felt these managers were subpar. It’s because they were subpar. They relied on dominance, aggression and manipulation rather than clear communication, expectation-setting and coaching to motivate employees.

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Here are some real-life examples from my own work history:

  • On the first day of my internship at a major daily newspaper, I attended a senior editorial meeting where someone pitched a story involving an Indigenous person as the central character. The top editor immediately replied, “Was he drunk?” which foreshadowed all the casual racism that I and other staff of colour experienced for the remainder of my internship.
  • After launching my own blog, my boss at a digital news outlet with tens of millions of readers sent me an email with the subject line, “What is THIS?” In a follow-up meeting, he reamed me out in front of another colleague, and demanded I take down the blog even though its focus was outside of the outlet’s scope. I wasn’t even a permanent employee, so my boss had no recourse to make any demands of me, though that didn’t stop him.
  • At a media startup that publicly espoused the importance of supporting community and upholding transparency, my boss asked every employee to take a significant paycut to keep the business afloat during a financially challenging time. Later, as things got worse and the company downsized, some of us worked for free for a period of time. I consented both times because I was completely invested in our mission, so I don’t hold these events against my former boss. But after the company went under, she asked me to continue performing tasks for free. Combined with other unprofessional acts, like exploding in anger and using the r-word in meetings, what emerged was a pattern of exploitative behaviour that betrayed her lack of ethics.

Read more: Working to death: Canadians need legal right to disconnect, experts say

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Sound familiar?

All of these people have one thing in common: They seemed to lack emotional intelligence, which a 2014 study shows is essential for bosses to effectively manage the needs of their direct reports and to maintain a peaceful, collaborative work environment. Instead, my former bosses unnecessarily relied on hierarchy and used bullying techniques to get their way.

This hostile management style isn’t going to fly with younger Canadians who not only expect flatter hierarchies at work, but are also less tolerant of “psychopathic leadership” styles — that is, “malevolent” and “noncooperative behaviours” — than their older counterparts. Indeed, a 2018 study reported that while baby boomers, gen Xers and millennials all generally believed psychopathic leadership was a bad form of leadership, the two older generations rated it higher as an effective leadership style than millennials.

The takeaway? If you’re a manager and don’t want your employees to leave en masse as part of the impending great resignation, be kind. It’s really not that hard.

Anita Li is a media strategist and consultant with a decade of experience as a multi-platform journalist at outlets across North America. She is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and Centennial College. Anita is the co-founder of Canadian Journalists of Colour, a rapidly growing network of BIPOC media-makers in Canada, as well as a member of the 2020-21 Online News Association board of directors. To keep up with Anita, subscribe to The Other Wave, her newsletter about challenging the status quo in journalism.


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