Power is no insulation against unhappiness. Image: Shutterstock

Wednesday 6th April 2016

Bosses suffer too

Toxic cultures also screw up senior executives, says HR Wolf
HR Wolf

In my previous columns, I’ve deliberately tried to ‘call out’ behaviours and attitudes I believe are endemic at the top of corporate life in the UK.

I’ve witnessed these over several years, working with C-level executives who regularly display a lack of appetite to carve out the time it takes to work with, and develop, employees who may not be as resilient as others.

And employees being asked to deliver more and more, often with less resource, in environments where there’s a stigma on mental health and they don’t feel able to ask for help – well, that really is a toxic mix.

The ‘wellbeing’ circus that doles out free baskets of fruit feels like feeding geese just before you slaughter them. Well, you know what I mean.

Senior pain

Some people have accused me of only talking about nasty senior executives. I won’t apologise for that, as I’m writing about what I see, every day.

However, I also know that many senior executives – contrary to employee perception – often operate in lonely, isolated and acutely stressful environments too.

I remember an interview for a role I really wanted to get. I’d gone through three rounds of assessments (joy!) and was looking forward to the final interview, in this instance with a global Programme Director of a multi-million IT implementation.

As soon as I saw him I could see that he was pretty stressed out. Nervy, fidgety body language, visible shaking in the hands – alarm bells started to ring.

We were about ten minutes in – enjoying the ‘bring me through your CV bit’ – when he interrupted me to ask: ‘I’ve had two senior managers hospitalised because of stress. What will you do about that?’

Rolling heads

It was a question, but felt like an accusation. I asked him what he meant and he started talking about how ‘high profile’ the programme was, that ‘everyone had it on their radar’ and that ‘heads were rolling’.

I answered by asking what he was doing about it. These people worked for him, and if two of them had been admitted to hospital due to work-induced stress, then there was either too much work for too few people, confusion on what people were meant to be doing, or both.

I didn’t get that job. We wrapped up fairly quickly after that, but I did get another role in the same company. This guy was seen as a rising star, and what I’d seen in the interview was his chance to ‘earn his stripes’ in a difficult environment.

He resigned about six months later. We caught up for a beer before he left and both laughed about the interview.

He said that he couldn’t understand why such an important piece of work hadn’t been given the resources it needed, how he had been left powerless to influence those above him, and how his own stress levels had stopped him from being the type of leader he knew he could be.

Inevitable damage?

There’s a Group Think in corporate life along the lines of, ‘Things are meant to be tough, and the best will naturally rise to the top’. This is bullshit, and in that Programme Director’s case derailed a promising career.

This Group Think says that delivering superior returns to shareholders will trump everything and collateral damage is an inevitable part of that.

Senior HR professionals, in their desire for a seat at the top table should remind themselves that they’re possibly in the only seat which will challenge this Group Think: I hope more of us start taking that idea more seriously.

About the author

HR Wolf

HR Wolf is the HRD of a FTSE 100 company. For obvious reasons, he likes to keep his identity secret.