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The Iron Fist Of Dysfunctional Managers

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

iron gauntlet

All supervisors and managers need to ensure that employees are getting their work done. But, in many workplaces, especially service oriented ones such as hospitals, schools, and non-profit social service agencies, iron fisted approaches backfire. Rather than improving the productivity and smooth functioning of the organization, they frustrate and burn out the most competent and dedicated workers.

Here are two recent examples:

Timecards for Professors

A community college vice president fears college professors aren’t working hard enough, and wants to make them more accountable for their time. She proposes requiring them to spend more hours on campus and possibly use time cards.

The problem: most professors have ten month contracts, yet spend their own time during “vacation” preparing for the next term and attending conferences and other professional development activities. Although some professors just do enough to get by, the majority also put in additional time during evenings and on weekends throughout the semester to correct tests and papers and create lectures and lessons. They serve on extra committees that are important to the college and spend time helping students far beyond required office hours. Few people go into teaching because they think it will make them rich. They care about their students and take professional pride in their work.

So what messages do time cards send? The professors feel bitter, angry, unappreciated, and less dedicated.

Automaton Nurses:

An urban hospital wants to make sure the nurses check on patients each hour. Instead of respecting their professionalism and allowing flexibility in the timing, nurses are required to write on a wallboard and check off each patient within minutes of that hour. If they do not adhere to this rigid schedule, regardless of the cause or crisis, time consuming and humiliating disciplinary measures are started against them.

The problem with this draconian policy: Many nurses are motivated by a desire to be of service and feel a deep commitment to their patients. They often shorten their lunch hour to make sure their patients receive care, rarely get to leave right when their shift ends, and work overtime they don’t want when there are staffing shortages.

And when the consequences of deviating from the white board rule are so dire? Nurses have to make writing on the board their priority, and feel an almost unbearable tension between the bureaucratic requirements and the true necessities of patient care. Stress leaves, early retirements, conflict, and high attrition rates result.

Why do administrations and managers behave this way when the results are so frequently negative?

If individual managers secretly feel inadequate and don’t want anyone to know, they may think these rigid policies make them look strong and successful to their higher ups. They may believe that unless they micromanage and control, employees won’t perform, and chaos will result.

What’s the solution?

These managers aren’t necessarily villains. They may not know what else to do or may not realize the impact their behavior has on others. They need training and coaching to enable them to build their inner strength, learn how to appreciate and inspire their employees, and still set appropriate limits.

When this iron-fisted approach is embedded in the entire workplace, even high-level managers cannot change it without organizational buy-in. There must be a long-term institutional commitment to changing policies, respecting and appropriately trusting employees, and training supervisors in new ways of leading. Often institutions need outside help to change for the better.

If these organizations and their managers learn to make expectations and consequences fair and consistent, communication respectful and clear, and appreciation, support, and opportunities for growth and improvement abundant, the result will be highly functioning, productive, and harmonious places to work.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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