The driven, obsessive boss. So many jump to mind that it's hard to keep them straight: Martha Stewart, General George Patton, "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani. But perhaps no-one exemplifies the breed better than Captain Ahab, the wailin' whaling captain of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
No "I feel your pain" mellow fellow, Ahab peg-legged across the deck, haranguing his crews toward his obsessive mission: Destroy the white whale. It had, after all, nearly killed Ahab on the previous voyage.
Never one to listen to his crew's cavils, he charged onward to inevitable (and well-deserved) destruction. But unless you love whales, you'd have to say Ahab's voyage ended on a sour note.
If you blame Ahab's problems on his, er, "management style," that would not surprise Kelly Zellars, an assistant professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She's just published a study that may surprise only drill sergeants, corporate managers and the odd whaling captain or two.
Abusive managers, she says, make subordinates less likely to go the extra mile. The underlings won't speak well of the organization to outsiders, will be less likely to help co-workers, and more likely to kvetch over trivialities, not to mention more likely to find another berth, I mean job.
Sure, you could say, "no duh," and click the mouse. Even Zellars admits she has, to some extent, plumbed the obvious. "I work in the human resource area, and yes, this is a 'duh' thing, that people who perceive abuse will be less likely to be good corporate players," she says. "But we need to remind companies that one abusive manager can negate all the things they are trying to do to motivate employees. Sometimes employers don't want to get rid of a manager, say he's a key technology guy or has good contacts.... I say, you've got to somehow teach people how to be better managers, because this one manager's behavior is negating all your time and money spent on motivating employees."
The researchers then asked supervisors of those employees to rate the subordinates' organizational "citizenship behavior" - essentially, their willingness to go beyond their position descriptions to help the Guard.
The linkage was clear. Subordinates of abusive bosses were less willing to extend themselves. But why?
Abuse, says Zellars, undermines employee's belief in "procedural justice" - the idea that workplace policies and procedures are fair, that everybody is treated equally. "The abusive supervisor is one factor that diminishes the perception of fair treatment," she says. "In the last 10 years, there's been a big push suggesting that fairness is very motivating to people, and companies have put in place policies and procedures so everybody feels their pay and chances of promotion will be fair."
The present study, she says, shows that one abusive manager "could diminish that perception of justice."
Thus while "you can't automatically say abused people will not go the extra mile," she adds, any organization that wants to have bosses watching over subordinates' shoulders may as well return to the whaling economy of the 1840s.
Extra-mile behaviors, she indicates, are likely to help any organization excel, and will feed directly into the bottom line.
Tell that to Captain Ahab. He certainly went the
extra nautical mile in his self-destructive quest to kill Moby-Dick, the
White Whale. And look where it got him...
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1851, or on-line.