With veins popping out of his neck, eyes bulging, his face six inches from mine, he screamed at me. We were in the middle of a crowded four-star restaurant. Curious heads swivelled our way. A colleague across the table looked down in embarrassment.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been bullied by a boss, of course. I’d had one early in my career who used to quietly savage his staff with a sadistic smile, letting us know that we were all worthless, talentless worms, but he’d try to make something of us. Master of the verbal dagger, he’d gut you to elevate his own self-esteem. The creative department had a revolving door as a result.
But, the sheer vitriol of the restaurant rant was something new. I was stunned. Mid-rant, I got up, wiped his spit off my face and decided it was time for a new boss. A sane boss.
Or better still, no boss.
Because, unfortunately, advertising is absolutely rife with toxic bosses. A very talented CD whom I much admire has been subjected to excruciatingly public barrages of vitriol over minor issues as well. He was dumbfounded by the first attack; as he put it, “my legs literally went numb.” Now he’s just used to it.
A survey of ad colleagues reveals that toxic bosses come in all shapes and sizes. Some take credit for your ideas, others sabotage you, lie or belittle your accomplishments.
Our business seems to offer safe refuge for abusive behaviour. We are too quick to file it under “creative temperament.” We fuel over-inflated egos. Ours is a business that rewards the renegades, the mavericks who break rules. I’m just not sure when common human decency became the rule to break.
It is truly shocking that we’ve allowed this particular stereotype to endure because these bullies we coddle are bad business. They drive talented people from agencies, sometimes from the industry entirely. The echo effect takes a toll on an agency’s focus and culture, and it inevitably hits the bottom line: talented people leave, good clients bolt and the place ends up with an ugly reputation on the street. We’ve all seen it.
Those with bad bosses who do stick around suffer damage and, for some, it can have long-term personal consequences. Over the years, I’d developed a theory that working for a bad boss caused a form of PTSD. I spoke to a clinical psychologist who backed it up. Her practice includes numerous patients who’ve suffered from bad bosses, many of who ended up on medication or in therapy.
Why don’t toxic bosses get called out? Often there is a power inequity at play, there’s no one to turn to. Anyone with a mortgage can’t risk confronting a bully boss. People fear reprisals such as being labelled as a trouble maker or thin skinned. On management’s side, there’s too often a tendency for the issue to be dismissed as “a personality thing.” And, frankly, with the almost maniacal focus on quarterly results, some places turn a blind eye to it as long as the numbers are being made.
As an industry, we are guilty of perpetuating the problem in other ways. We don’t train people to be good leaders – particularly in creative. The honed skills that vault someone into the corner office don’t include how to manage people. Quite recently I’ve seen two wonderfully talented creatives get promoted only to flounder once they made it to the top because they hadn’t been given any formal training. They simply didn’t have the tools needed to thrive in the role. Almost all other professions put time, budget and effort into leadership training.
Turning the Toxic Tide
On the flip side, I’ve been fortunate to have had some extraordinary bosses throughout my career. One believed that fear was not a motivator and coaxed great work through well-placed praise. Then he stood back and let us do our jobs.
Another boss hired me for skills he didn’t have. He also helped me to acquire skills of his that I needed. If there was an issue, he took it up privately. And his ego never got in the way of the right decision. Ever. He linked arms with our team when times were tough, rather than playing the blame game.
We can all spot a good boss, but we seem ambivalent about propagating those same skills that drive happy, productive businesses. The collateral damage to employees and businesses is too profound to ignore. So where do we go from here?
We need some brave souls willing to help lead the charge, to stop seeing training as elective. To create a culture of good bosses, there are two key elements: growing and pruning.
We can nurture strong leadership in a number of ways. One agency I work with has a formal mentorship program in place to ensure a watchful eye on personal growth.
Organizations such as the ICA can help breathe life into the cause with specialized training programs and seminars. There are companies, like Combustion, that offer specialized leadership workshops. It believes leadership is highly specialized and objective training helps build leaders who can motivate and inspire rather than just wielding the blunt instrument of terror.
But pruning is just as important. To create a robust leadership culture, we need to cull out the bad ones – without fear of reprisal. Senior management and HR departments need to get on board to create a safe haven for reporting rogue behaviour.
And finally, as an industry, we have to telegraph the message loud and clear what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour from our leaders.
It’s ironic that every grade school has had the good sense to adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying. Maybe it’s time ad agencies did the same.
This article originally appeared on Marketing Magazine