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Book Review: ‘Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions,’ by Samuel A. Culbert, PhD

When people quit their jobs and say “it wasn’t a good fit,” what does that really mean? It may mean they couldn’t handle their toxic boss. In his new book, Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions (Oxford University Press, June 2017), Samuel A. Culbert, PhD examines why bad management is the norm, and why too few managers are up to the task. Culbert is an award-winning author, researcher, and professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

Those who rise into the ranks of management often do so with the best of intentions, Culbert points out. They may look forward to creating a positive environment and inspire their team to give and be their best. But soon other forces thwart those plans — including a cutthroat American workplace culture. Instead of advancing their people, managers are compelled to shift their priorities to advancing their own careers.

When managers become focused on their own self-serving agendas, employees become a means to an end; mentoring and supporting roles go out the window. So, too, go the skills involved in helping others accomplish and succeed. And when work relationships are based solely on this hierarchical, command-and-control model, employees become understandably reluctant to ask managers for help. Instead, they turn to protecting themselves.

It’s a vicious cycle, according to Culbert. When work becomes more about watching your back and saying only what others want to hear, and when employees are punished for speaking out about any problems that arise, allegiance and passion are destroyed. Work that promised to be fulfilling becomes drudgery. Stress at the office increases while the bottom line suffers.

It’s a common picture these days, as evidenced by recent corporate cover-ups, such as Volkswagen’s emissions conspiracy and the Veterans Health Administration’s fabricated appointment ledgers. It’s an environment which discourages workers from speaking up about lies and deception. Instead of being lauded for revealing a problem, they know they may be penalized. So they protect their jobs.

While not optimistic about the corporate culture at large changing any time soon, Culbert does offer a better way forward. To spark a new managerial mentality, he suggests moving away from punitive measures. He recommends a lessons-learned form of accountability: if an employee has learned sufficiently from a mistake, it’s unlikely to be repeated in the future. He also argues that it’s high time we got rid of performance reviews. Ranking employees against each other at the manager’s discretion, often held to impossible standards, is anything but helpful and further grinds down employee morale. Instead, manager and employee should come together to discuss what’s being learned and where there’s room for improvement. Make it collaborative, with both sides looking for ways to support each other.

Another key facet of repairing the broken managerial model is working to infuse every exchange with authenticity and integrity, Culbert adds. That means welcoming dissent. An employee who sees things differently shouldn’t suffer the consequences for simply not being in line with a manager’s ideas. Often there’s innovation to be found in that approach, so long as it’s not presented contentiously. It’s always good to have a range of opinions — and it just may move the needle toward more genuine exchanges and increased trust. In terms of healing the workplace and creating better managers, that’s something what we clearly need.

Learn more about Samuel A. Culbert, PhD and his new book at the author’s website.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her “beat” is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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