IS THERE anything more career-deflating than a bad boss? Whether an employee is in Human Resource (HR), climbing the corporate ladder or manning the assembly line, having a direct supervisor who doesn’t seem to appreciate or care for his subordinate can have a disastrous effect.

It will often lead to disengagement from the job or, worse, antagonism against the employer. For the company, it means increased stress and medical leave, and also a fall in worker-productivity.

The fact that such issues can be contagious across a staff group means that HR should be very interested in curbing quickly and effectively.

US-born authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster know this only too well. They have researched a wide range of deteriorating office relationships to understand the causes, costs and remedies of such conflicts.

They published their first book, Working with You Is Killing Me, in 2006. Their latest effort, Working for You Isn’t Working for Me, was released in September last year.

Their research and advice draws on a unique combination of psychology and business strategy. “Our business is helping people work out their relationships in the workplace,” says Ms Crowley. “It’s where most people spend most of their time, so if it’s not working, there can be a lot of pain.”

Unique perspective

Authors Crowley and Elster, or K Squared (K2) as their combined business is known, have been researching and advising businesses on these sorts of issues for more than 20 years.

Between Ms Elster’s experience running businesses for others, and Ms Crowley’s qualifications in psychology and counselling, they were able to offer a unique perspective on common business problems.

K2 found some familiar patterns in many worker-boss relationships. “We saw that the motivation behind a lot of behaviour at work was the same as anywhere else,” they said. Feelings of intimidation, confusion and powerlessness often overwhelmed the workplaces they studied.

At the heart of this stress and conflict often lies an unskilled supervisor. Typically, this untrained manager is highly skilled at the product or service that they are overseeing, but not skilled at managing people.

Ms Crowley says most supervisors have little understanding of the skills that help engage, encourage and inspire staff.

HR’s role

HR leaders can assist at both ends of the equation — working with manager-level staff to improve their supervisory skills and working with their subordinates to resolve potential conflicts before they affect productivity or the bottom line.

Ms Crowley says a lot of K2’s advice revolves around coping strategies for affected workers, ensuring that the failings of their superiors don’t translate into career problems for them.

For example, one common reaction to an overly aggressive or critical boss can be to fight back as quickly as possible. But K2 advises workers to try a calmer approach.

“An employee who is upset by something the boss says or does, needs to calm down in that moment,” Ms Elster says, adding that this gives the worker more options to resolve the conflict without exacerbating it.

When dealing with a difficult boss, whether he or she is a “chronic critic”, a “yeller”, an “unconscious discriminator”, a “control freak” or any other strain of bad manager syndrome, K2 offers a four-word maxim: “Detect (the improper behaviour), Detach (from the situation), De-personalise (making the problem a business one, not an individual one) and Deal.”

This simple and effective checklist is just one of the strategies that Ms Crowley and Ms Elster plan to share at this year’s HR Summit in Singapore. Their presentation, “Working for you isn’t working for me — how HR can help employees manage their bosses”, will open participants’ eyes to just how common (and disruptive) sour office relationships can be.

“There’s a bit of relief sometimes,” Ms Crowley notes. “Many people think that they are crazy or that it only happens to them — but poor supervision skills can be universal.

“Every participant comes away with a greater awareness of his or her own behaviour, as well as their boss’s.”

The pair have accumulated a great deal of research and statistical evidence over their 20 years in the field. Says Ms Elster: “People sometimes think that our work is obvious but it’s actually very deep. It takes time to learn a new way of being.”

Participants will be shown, rather than told, how to really improve some of the critical working relationships in their organisations at this humorous and lively presentation.