Mediocre managers just as damaging as bad ones?

Horrible bosses – the ones who blame others, play favourites and make inappropriate jokes – not surprisingly can have a detrimental impact on businesses and on employees’ morale.

Quietly, even run-of-the-mill managers can do just as much harm, new research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) indicates. Managers who are comfortable with the status quo often do a poor job developing employees.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy for London-based CIPD, said mediocre managers don’t exhibit “blatantly damaging” behaviour. “They exhibit more subtle behaviours that over time can cause stress,” he said.

The CIPD report, Managing for Sustainable Employee Engagement: Developing a Behavioural Framework, details some of the actions of mediocre managers that limit employee engagement.

Among the traits of the mediocre manager are:

  • Not taking responsibility.

  • Passing on stress to employees.

  • Panicking about deadlines.

  • Telling personnel what to do instead of consulting with them.

Managers who are calm under pressure, invest time in talking to their staff and discuss career development are likely to have offices with higher levels of employee engagement and lower levels of stress and absence.

Low levels of employee engagement have been shown in other research to contribute to higher workplace turnover and lower productivity.

Companies can train managers to be more involved in their employees’ development, but it’s also important that companies look for such interpersonal skills when hiring from outside or promoting from within. Willmott said that today’s business environment demands that managers listen more to employees, who could have ideas for new products or ways to interact with customers.

“Increasingly, the people in management do need people-management skills,” Willmott said. “We’re moving away from command-and-control style of leadership to a more collaborative style of leadership. Organisations are realising that if they want to be sensitive to changing customer demand, then they need employee voice … to boost innovation. That’s why these sorts of behaviours are so critical.”

The CIPD report is based on the analysis of responses from more than 500 employees and 120 managers in the UK. Respondents were asked to give their views on their immediate line manager, their level of engagement and their wellbeing.

The report offers a five-pronged framework for “managing for sustainable employee engagement.” The five competencies of that framework are:

  • Open, fair and consistent: keeping emotions in check and taking a positive approach in personal interactions.

  • Handling conflict and problems: using appropriate company resources to deal with such issues as employee bullying or abuse.

  • Knowledge, clarity and guidance: clear communication, demonstrating an understanding of roles and of responsible decision-making.

  • Building and sustaining relationships: personal interaction with employees that is highlighted by empathy and consideration.

  • Supporting development: promoting an employee’s career progression.

The report’s conclusion says that employers can apply the framework to part of a manager’s training programme or performance appraisal so that managers are given clear instructions that they are being evaluated on those behaviours.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.