It always irritates me when I hear people excuse a manager’s poor performance by saying “don’t worry about (insert name of bad manager here), he/she is ‘old school.'” What does that really mean when someone describes a decision maker as ‘old school?’ My initial list isn’t very complimentary: general behaviors would be problems with anger management, poor communication skills, bullying, yelling, harassing employees, refusing to deal with issues such as prejudice, sexism and inequity (or even actively promoting them for kickback), ineffective conflict resolution, silencing messengers, and no allowance for input or feedback.

Think about it – is there any “school” that would teach these vices?

Managers who can be characterized by these kinds of behaviors likely don’t have a management education or if they do, either they didn’t pay attention to the courses or they haven’t reconsidered their thinking in a VERY long time. It isn’t just the ‘old school’ label I object to: it is the wry smile and other qualifiers that usually accompany such comments. You’ve heard them too – things like:

  • “Boys will be boys”
  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
  • “That’s just the way some people are”

Why bad management matters

Bad management is everywhere. In Ireland, ESRI research showed that bullying among managers in the public sector is more prevalent than in the private sector. Hutichinson, Vickers, Jackson & Wilkes tracked workplace bullying in nursing drew attention to broader political processes and the how the interplay between power and domination can work to silence critical thought and action. In education, one administrator’s bullying that was kept covert by three administrative support people ended up costing the school district the following amounts:

  • $119,957 — 2004 arbitration
  • $225,000 — 2005 settlement
  • $60,475 (est.) 10 years district contribution to her retirement
  • $35,200 (est.) 10 years health and welfare benefits
  • $104,956 — district legal expenses, all designed to enable bullying without consequences

The grand total was $545,588: the total expense for ONE bully principal and 3 supportive district personnel – and that doesn’t even begin to tally the indirect costs to those employees working under this school principal. (Get the full read at

An Australian study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) did a survey of 478 HR professionals and 613 employees to determine the negative effects of various issues on worker productivity. The findings were as follows:

  1. Effects of poor management: 58% negative impact on productivity
  2. Lack of motivation among employees: 38% negative impact on productivity
  3. Ongoing organizational changes: 26% negative impact on productivity

One doesn’t have to make a giant cognitive leap to see that lack of motivation and poor handling of organizational change are likely also linked to management.

Productivity issues aside, let’s look at some of the medical effects of this so-called ‘old school’ of management. Anna Nyberg of the Swedish Karolinska Institutet discovered during her doctoral research that bad bosses have an actual medical impact. Employees with poor managers were sick more often and missed more work than employees with skilled managers.

But that isn’t the worst news: based on 20,000 employees from Sweden, Finland, Germany, Poland and Italy and in a variety of fields and industries, this study showed that the longer an employee worked under a bad manager, the greater the risk of heart attack. The research found unequivocally that employees working under bad managers have a higher rate of heart attacks than do employees working with good managers[1].

Why this research struck me is because one of my manufacturing clients had no less than three of their long term maintenance employees die from heart attack over a period of 16 months. All three had worked for 10 years under immediate managers and upper managers who were bullies. I was working with their plant manager and through his vision and effort the plant’s workplace climate completely changed within two years and, in my opinion, this leadership gem should be nominated for an award. But, unfortunately he came too late to help the employees who died – two of whom had their heart attacks at work.

So don’t excuse anyone in your organization by letting them off the behavior accountability hook. There is no “old school” of management. It is a myth that allows us to avoid facing the reality: we are condoning upper level substandard behavior by excusing it. We are wasting money, time, energy, and making employees fearful, sick, and, in some cases, dead because of our inaction or our insufficient action.

Instead, start small. Call a spade a spade and name that behaviour.


[1] To find out more about this study search; “The impact of managerial leadership on stress and health among employees”, Anna Nyberg, Department of Public Health Services, Karolinska Institutet, doctoral thesis.