Unprofessional behaviour from management

There are going to be times when the person you work for, or someone else higher than you in an organisation says or does something that you wouldn’t expect from a leader. This article explores the manager-subordinate relationship, expectations and techniques to work through those times.
What is unprofessional behaviour?  Some examples that come up in discussions and articles include rudeness, a short temper/anger, speaking over others, general disrespect (time or input) and backbiting.

So let’s explore the manager-subordinate relationship.    I think it’s extremely fascinating when you start pulling it apart.    I have covered different perspectives of this topic in other articles such as ‘Friends at work’ and ‘The consultative leader problem’.    Revisiting it again now I think my view is still the same;  that there is a bi-directional respect required for both positions and there should be no difference between this relationship and nearly all others.  The interactions, consideration etc is all the same.

Overall there are a lot of requirements set via law; covering equality, sexual harassment, racism etc.  These govern interactions in both directions, they are clear and generally well enforced.  Society norms also provide us with an additional set of expectations. We all expect some level of politeness etc. So for both managers and subordinates these expectations on behaviour in any direction are mostly the same.

So what extra do we expect from our managers?   Leadership and management get a lot of focus these days.  There are a million and one books, seminars, blogs and studies out there suggesting rights, wrongs and best practices.   We expect a lot from our leaders and I have found (even personally) that we give our leaders very little room for faults.   However there are certain behaviours, values, knowledge and skills expected from our leaders.  Employees look for leaders with traits such as integrity, honesty, intelligence, determination and vision.  Since 1998 there has also been a growing trend for leaders to have EQ traits such as empathy, social skills and humility (Baldoni, 2009)(Wood, 2011).  This also ties in with the more successful management styles like ‘Transformational Management’ which is inspirational and collaborative rather than punishment and reward focused.  While the Australian Institute of Managements survey (AIM, 2001) is getting a little dated now it contains a good sample size and some interesting information about use and perceived success of Transformational Management.   In summary though it is pretty clear we are looking for people leaders and not just technical and business leaders.

The expectations coming top-down are usually very clear via role description regular performance measurements.  Our leaders are also responsible for communicating and enforcing workplace guidelines and laws.  My observation is that most managers generally adopt a power style which facilitates direction and control rather than collaboration and true leadership.   Managing with scare tactics (even subtle overtones of superiority) are still pretty common.   I have heard of managers who perhaps not even consciously employ questionable tactics which are only working because they are higher in the hierarchy and wouldn’t be accepted by a peer (let alone if the situation was in reverse).   It would be challenging to tell your boss that yelling at them is not appropriate for example.

Most workplaces have well defined processes to address bad performance, including behaviour.  I think these processes/systems are strongest top-down, both culturally and in their construction. I think this is why when expectations aren’t met or we experience bad treatment, we generally look for new leaders instead of addressing it.

I have touched on the human element, in that our leaders are people too and they make mistakes.  I still think that society in general under estimates the impact of stress and largely lacks the skills to work with stressed people.  I am not suggesting it is easy though.  Without going into the depths of spotting stress the one clear sign is your own frustration/reaction to the other person.  If you find yourself reacting then one of you are under some kind of stress and it shouldn’t take much to figure out who.  Psychologists note many effects of stress including mental slowness, confusion, general negative attitudes or thoughts, constant worry, a racing mind, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, difficulty thinking in a logical sequence, being overwhelmed and the inability to problem-solve (Bressert, S. 2006).  If your manager is stressed either from the immediate situation or suffering long term then either way they are not always able to operate the way you need or expect.  That doesn’t mean we should just let it go, I hope we can all create a frame of mind to address it with compassion and with less stress ourselves.

So what to do?

I’m not a big fan of legal angles but the definition of workplace bullying from the Australian Human Rights Commission is very useful. To at least provide you with comfort in what is generally recognised as ok and not ok . I would suggest that a fair percentage of what people identify as unprofessional behaviour also fits into the commissions definition. However if you can put the behaviour down to a bad day or week in an otherwise productive working relationship then bullying might be the correct term, but completely out of place. Unfortunately in our current culture, if you choose to file a complaint up the chain then in most cases I would say be prepared to leave your job. If that manager is well liked in the organisation then even if you are right it may not be acceptable in the hierarchy.

If some kind of misunderstanding has occurred then it is important to clarify that you believe there is a misunderstanding and that you had no intention of offending/upsetting/troubling the other person. It’s critical you avoid justifying your position regardless of what it is and you being right or wrong. Focus on defusing the tension and showing the other person that regardless of any recent events you want to work with them.  I would suggest this comes down to having respect.  Keep in mind that especially in these types of situations the riot act is quickly wheeled out in some shape or form. That is people quickly revert to hierarchy and that the boss is always right type thinking.

If your just not sure if your expectations are fair;  I think asking yourself what would I expect from anyone else can act as a good reasonableness check.  It’s fair not to expect or tolerate rudeness or being yelled at from anyone for example.


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