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Nice Bosses Do No Better (or Worse) Than Nasty Ones

Vivia Chen

May 2, 2016


This will be music to many a partners' ears: You can be yourself. That means you can skip the sensitivity training, the anger management sessions and those damn yoga poses. That's right, you can go back to yelling, screaming, humiliating and brutalizing your underlings. Hell, yeah, it's time to get back in touch with your inner Donald.

What brings this jolt of jolly news? According to new research by two faculty members at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, employees are no more likely to stick with a good boss as a crummy one. (The study's authors, Ravi Gajendran and Deepak Somava, surveyed over 700 employees at a large multinational IT firm.) Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Gajendran and Somava report:

Conventional wisdom says that people don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses. Yet our research — and growing evidence from other leadership studies — finds that employees leave both good and bad bosses at almost comparable rates.

The research seems to indicate that good managers are often victims of their own success. They are so good at developing their employees that their acolytes end up with an abundance of alternatives. Explain the authors in HBR:

Supportive managers empower employees to take on challenging assignments with greater responsibilities, which sets employees up to be strong external job candidates. So employees quit for better opportunities elsewhere — better pay, more responsibility, and so on.

If those little ingrates are going to dump a mensch of a boss anyway, why bother being a decent manager? You might as well treat them like dirt, throw your weight around and have some fun—like partners did in the good old days.

Whoa, warn the authors. They advocate taking a long term view of the boss/employee relationship. It's better (and smarter) if employees leave as "happy quitters," they write, because it builds good will, "which they are likely to retain as alumni, in turn becoming sources of valuable information, recommendations, and business opportunities later on."

For all you law partners out there who tend to think short term, let me translate the research in a way that you might understand: Be nice to associates because they might be useful to you one day. Let's be even more blunt: They might be clients or source of client referrals one day.

That means not holding a grudge and acting like a betrayed lover if they leave. "This approach also requires a change in the mindset of managers who might otherwise be good leaders but respond negatively when talented employees leave them to continue their careers elsewhere," write the authors.

But I'd extend the good vibes even to employees that you might not have valued. I know some of you might find it hard to believe that associates whom you considered expendable—not "partnership material"—could be in a position of power, but it happens. I've seen it. I've known lawyers deemed losers at their firms who ended up in enviable positions. And guess what? Suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot, and the partner has to grovel. Sweet!

So make a little effort. Try to be a good boss. Or at least not a complete a-hole.




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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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