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Title: Bad Management: consequences for the collective workplace
Subtitle: Incompetent Management causes collective burn out
Author Anita Mac PhD
DK- 4000 Roskilde
Phone: +4546743690; +4551554478
Key words Management, culture, stress, collective burn-out
Section 1: Introduction
It is a well-established point in the social research tradition that management can have a
significant influence on the work performance and job satisfaction of employees. (Koys
2001; Moorman 1991; Eriksson & Smith 2007) Job satisfaction, job performance, stress,
absenteeism and staff turnover are interrelated factors which in sum define the
psychosocial environment (Limborg, 2002; Semmer 2003) within an organisation, and at
the same time define central elements in the Human Relations research tradition (Holten-
Larsen 2006; Mabey et. al. 1998). A common conclusion within the research fields of
Human Relations and Occupational Health is that management does indeed play a
significant role in the quality of the psychosocial environment.
It is also a well-known fact that work-related stress and absenteeism are major problems in
western societies. (Kompier et. al 2000). If we go beyond the quantitative reports on the
amount of stress and job dissatisfaction and the general points about the relationship
between job performance and job satisfaction, and focus on what is really going on in
organisations which suffer from stress and job dissatisfaction – what role does
management then play? What are the precise consequences of, and what kinds of
problems arise in an organisation which suffers from bad management?
In this article, on the basis of empirical studies, I describe the consequences of from a
bottom-up perspective (Borazon & Sørensen 1998), by which I mean how employees
experience and describe the consequences of bad management. However, I focus on
describing the negative consequences of incompetent management at the collective level,
meaning the ways in which incompetent management influences the collective culture in
negative terms. Consequently, the focus is not on the individual employees’ own reactions
to a stressful work environment, but rather on how the collective culture gradually falls
apart and becomes characterised by distrust among the participants.
Section 2: The structure of the article
In section 3 I describe the methodological preparation, implementation and analysis of the
research. The empirical part of the research is intended to provide documentation to the
phenomena ‘incompetent management’ with the purpose to give details (Bryman 2004) of
how incompetent management influence on occupational health and the collective culture.
The research is based on a bottom-up perspective, defined in order to investigate the
respondents’ understanding of the phenomenon of ‘incompetent management’. Following
institutional theory (Powell & DiMaggio 1991; Nielsen 2005; Mac 2005), a phenomenon is
described through the social actors’ 1) description of the problem 2) explanation of the
problem and 3) ideas for solutions. In section 4, the result of the research is described.
The overall conclusion is that incompetent management results in a fragmented working
environment characterised by distrust, reduced job performance and exhaustion. In the
following section, section 5, the results of the empirical research findings are discussed in
the light of Maclach’s theory of burn-out and Siegrist’s theory of effort-reward imbalance.
The implications for further research are discussed, and finally, section 6 contains the
Section 3: Studying the consequences of incompetent management
I interviewed 24 respondents who claimed to be currently experiencing incompetent
management, or who had done so in the past, with the aim of describing management
from a bottom-up perspective and obtaining in-depth explanations of how incompetent
management adversely affects employees1. At the time of the interviews some had already
left their former organisations, some were on sick leave, and others were still at the
organisation. The interviews had several themes, and for the purposes of this article, the
most import theme was the influence of incompetent management on the collective
The research is empirically based and has a documentary aim. Its point of departure is
that management wields significant influence over the psychosocial environment and the
collective culture, and furthermore that incompetent management influences the collective
culture in negative terms. The overall aim is to provide empirical documentation for the
ways in which incompetent management influences the daily work, work culture and job
satisfaction. The article does not utilise a defined theory of good management, good
working culture or a healthy psychosocial environment, but leaves it to the respondents to
define what they see as failure in the practice of management. By doing so, a bottom-up
perspective emerges on the phenomenon of incompetent management.
Sampling took place on the principle of the ’snowball method’, (Bryman 2004) as it was
only possible to make contact via informal channels. It was surprisingly easy to contact
respondents. I spread the word that I was interested in interviewing people who had
experiences with incompetent management, and was very quickly contacted by some
respondents. I asked these people to suggest other possible respondents in other
workplaces. Others also contacted me to suggest themselves or others as respondents,
because they had heard of my research. Some were rejected because they didn’t
represent my primary criterion for sampling, namely experiences with ’mediocre
incompetent management’, as opposed to really incompetent management such as
psychopathic behaviour, bullying, and the like.
1 The study is fully reported in the book: ‘Fri os fra dårlig ledelse’ (Let Us Be Free of Incompetent Management)
Frydenlund, Copenhagen Forlag 2007.
Fourteen interviews were conducted with a sample representing a broad range of
professions and occupational categories. The interviews contributed to widening the
research base, as experiences with incompetent management were illuminated from many
perspectives. In addition, ten interviews were held which focused on knowledge-intensive
professions such as consultancy, IT work, education, finance and telecommunication, in
both the public and private sector. All respondents held non-managerial positions. There
was an equal gender distribution, as well as in the number of years in the labour market,
which was between three and twenty years. The selected sample ensured breadth in the
data collection, while at the same time there was an in-depth focus on a limited category of
professions, namely knowledge workers. (Johnson 1990) This article mainly concentrates
on the ten interviews with knowledge workers.
Subject matter of the interviews
The interview process applied a technique of asking questions with the aim of focusing the
accounts on a narratively defined area. The main structure concentrated on obtaining the
respondents’ 1) description of the problem, 2) explanation of the problem, and 3)
suggestions for actions which could remedy the problem. The descriptions obtained were
at both individual and collective level. Consequently, respondents were encouraged to
describe their sense-making from their own highly personal perspectives, but also to
describe how the social environment made sense of the problem (Weick 1995). This
technique for focusing on a phenomenon (here: incompetent management) is, as
mentioned above, inspired by sociological institutional theory, which argues that a
phenomenon is to be understood in terms of the ways that the actors apply meaning to it
while defining the phenomenon, explaining the phenomenon and describing action taken
to address the problem.
The interviews were also divided into an individual and a collective dimension by asking:
What were the consequences of incompetent management for the respondent? What
consequences did incompetent management have for the collective culture, as the
respondents saw it? For the purpose of exploring these questions, a series of sub-
questions and sub-themes were necessary. For the purposes of this article, the most
relevant questions were: What do incompetent managers focus on? And to what do they
fail to pay attention? These questions aimed at highlighting the awareness of managers of
(1) work processes versus work results, and (2) operational versus developmental work,
and (3) the work culture. This theme opened up the idea that incompetent management is
not only characterised by what it does wrong, but just as importantly, by a lack of attention
to important organisational issues. Aside from this, the aim was to include the distinction
between management and leadership which is regarded as highly important in modern
management theory, (Kotter 1990; Bass 1997) and which identifies a significant difference
between management styles which concentrate on operational/controlling management
and leadership styles which concentrate on developmental/coaching management. (Bass
1998) To highlight the consequences for the collective culture, questions were asked about
the way in which the informal organisation reacted to incompetent management. What
happened to the willingness to support each other, the degree of trust among the
participants, and the practice of informal chat and meetings? These questions build upon
Martin’s (Martin, 1992) theoretical concept of the integrative versus disintegrative modes of
operation of a culture.
Indeed, after the first pilot interview, it became clear that the respondents’ ability to explain
the nature of incompetent management was very poor. Typically, their answers were poorly
reflected, unclear and hesitant. Suddenly, however, they began to speak angrily and
quickly about the issue in the interviews. In general, their language wasn’t well formulated.
It became clear that incompetent management is not characterised merely by one or by a
few indicators; on the contrary, a host of indicators of daily malfunctions, disorders and
failures together drew a picture of poor quality in management style. The pilot interviews
were loosely structured, while the other interviews were semi-structured (Kvale 997). The
lesson learned from the explorative pilot interviews was to be aware of the question-asking
technique by focusing on ‘how – what – when - who’ and avoiding too many ‘why’
questions, with the aim of obtaining concrete examples and accounts (Bryman 2004)
The respondents were in all cases emotionally affected, irrespective of whether they were
still in the job, on sick leave, or had left the job a few years previously. They felt anger,
shame and frustration, and found the entire incompetent management situation
humiliating. The interviews took place outside the workplace and lasted for 1½ - 2½ hours.
Analysing the data
In this article, the most relevant analysis variables are linked to what was said about 1)
how the collective culture defined the problem, 2) how they made sense of it, and 3) action
taken to try to remedy the problem. The problem of incompetent management is thereby
illuminated from the actors’ point of view in a bottom-up perspective. The techniques of
narrative sociology are employed (Berger & Quinney 2005; Nymark 2000), and the
analyses do not query whether the actors are right or wrong, or whether there might be
good explanations for the incompetent management practices described. Only the
employees’ point of view is considered, as our interest is in studying how incompetent
management is perceived, explained and coped with by the affected actors.
Through a comprehensive analysis, a pattern began to emerge across the interviews of
the effect of incompetent management on the collective culture; it is this pattern of
frustrated and painful interaction between employees, and between employees and
managers, which is described in the subsequent section.
Section 4: Consequences of incompetent management for the collective culture
A common feature which emerged from the respondents’ stories is that incompetent
management erodes the organisation’s social cohesion. The willingness to get things to
work in the daily routine ceases. The work is done, but without commitment, at a low level,
and with no willingness to contribute to the common good. In the following, the empirical
results are reported in more detail.
The employees’ working situation
First of all, it is necessary to obtain a picture of the working situation of the respondents
and of their basic attitude to the work. The persons interviewed were highly-educated
knowledge workers who were deeply committed to their work, and for whom their
professional identity meant a great deal. They were willing to put in far more work than
was formally required of them. They typically worked long hours and brought their work
home with them. They were motivated by the challenge of finding creative solutions to their
tasks. The tasks were often not well-defined, but open to interpretation, such as the work
of teachers, IT workers, consultants, etc. In general, the work tasks were non-
standardized, and it was up to the employees themselves to find appropriate solutions and
methods. The consultants, for example, had to must find new customers, identify the
potential customers’ needs and wants, and creatively work out how best to serve the
customer. The interviewed employees expected to have scope and freedom of action in
their work. They also expected the role of management to be to ensure that employees are
supplied with the best possible support to create the best possible results. They were
prepared to put in hard work. For some, the work tasks were carried out individually. Many
tasks were performed alone, and as a result they were relatively independent of their
colleagues. For others, the work was organised in teams or projects, while for others again
the work was sometimes organised as individual tasks and sometimes as collective work.
To sum up, the employees were highly committed to their work and their tasks challenged
them to work creatively and flexibly. They put in many more hours of work than they were
formally paid for, and in return they expected support and good working conditions, and
especially for managers to know how to provide them with optimum support and
The respondents’ identification of the managerial problem and their reasons
During the interviews it was frequently difficult for the interviewed persons to put the
managerial problem into words. The problem was not so much a few obvious failures, but
rather many small failures. There was a lack of a sound management attitude.
The respondents talked about managers who kept exclusively to administrative
management, while initiatives and coordination seemed to be arbitrary. They reported that
they never received feedback on their job performance, and received the impression that
the high level of commitment they invested in the job was for their own benefit only, rather
than that of the organisation. They talked about being overloaded with tasks and about
managers failing to contribute by prioritising these tasks. The managers frequently focused
exclusively on results but had no feeling for what was required to obtain good results. As
an example, managers might demand of the teachers that as many students as possible
should graduate, as this had a bearing on grants to the educational institution, but paid
little or no attention to how the teachers could provide teaching of a sufficient quality to
allow the students to graduate. The managers actually referred disparagingly to the
teachers’ educational and professional development initiatives. Some respondents said
that while they could initiate new projects and tasks, the organisation had no plan or
strategy for the development process, so the meaning of the work was unclear. It seemed
to matter little whether they initiated projects or developed new ideas, and it did not seem
to interest the managers whether the teachers taught in a manner which was mediocre or
outstanding. Such passive managers concentrated only on administration and on
measurable results, while the quality of the work was the concern of the employees alone.
Other respondents spoke about a management style in which the managers demanded
that employees followed rational procedures in the way they carried out their tasks, even
though their tasks were by nature creative and explorative, and could be destroyed by
applying such rational procedures as milestones, SWOT analyses etc. Such managers
were highly controlling in terms of formal requirements and output, but disregarded the
processes required to ensure good quality.
Other respondents spoke about management being concerned only with the distribution of
operational tasks among the employees, but failing to coordinate and prioritise the tasks.
Coordination and dialogue concerning the work of the department was lacking, with the
result that a lack of meaning and direction arose. One consultant said that the entire job
seemed to revolve around getting as many customers as possible, whereas how to do this
and what to offer the potential customers was left up to the individual employee. A
common meaning and direction were sought for the work, but this was not provided by the
All of the persons interviewed spoke about a tremendous lack of feedback and recognition
for their efforts. Obtaining feedback and recognition shows that your work is valuable
(Honneth 2003). Employees experienced frustration because of the lack of recognition,
mostly in terms of social recognition. Social recognition means that your contribution and
efforts have been noticed and are valued; when such recognition is lacking, the result is a
feeling of indifference and isolation (Honneth 2003).
To sum up, the following characteristics of incompetent management were provided by the
respondents. Incompetent management:
Was exclusively interested in managerial tasks, administration and deadlines
Related only to quantities and results
Failed to focus on what was needed to create results
Did not pay attention to the content or methods involved in the task
Failed to ensure that the work was properly organised
Provided no feedback on the quality of the work
Demanded that creative processes be subject to rational control
Had no focus on creating collective sensemaking and direction
Avoided dialogue on working conditions
There are many different aspects to what incompetent management does and fails to do,
and the interviewed persons quoted examples of both laissez-faire and authoritarian
management as expressions of incompetent management (Bass 1997; Yulk 1998).
The respondents’ accounts indicate that ‘you can have a good job at an incompetent
workplace’. They were, in general, satisfied with their own tasks and found them
stimulating. However, too much was left up to the individual in making sense of and
evaluating the quality of his or her work performance. A more important problem, however,
was the lack of focus on collective meaning and direction, and on how to achieve good
results. Failure to handle these central managerial tasks was one of the most significant
criticisms expressed in the accounts given by the respondents.
The employees’ attempts to find solutions
If the organisation nonetheless functioned, it was due to the work of the informal
organisation. The informal organisation is based on norms and social values, not on rules
and procedures (Scott; 2003). In the organisations in question, the informal organisation
was characterised by a strong commitment on the part of the employees to their
professions and by their willingness to take initiatives and contribute to the development of
new ideas and methods. As one interviewee explained: “The work is done despite the
management, not thanks to the management.” But what the employees were aiming for in
the long run was for their efforts to be meaningful and recognised. The consequence of the
absence of good management is that employees eventually experienced their work as
stressful, and their willingness to contribute to sensemaking and coherence evaporated.
They required coherent visions and plans in order to obtain meaning from their working
Informal conversation about the problems
These employees did not possess the traditional wage-earner attitude in which
management and workers are seen as opponents. They saw themselves rather as part of
a community and an organisation in which they had a common interest. They felt that
management failed to live up to its side of the bargain; when managers failed to prioritise
them as ‘the most important resource’, they felt frustration. Conflicts between employees
and managers were not natural to them, and they felt great discomfort in criticising the
management methods (Alvin et. al 2006).
In the informal organization, however, the problems became the subject of chat and
gossip. Employees talked together in their offices behind closed doors, by the copy
machine and in the corridors - always in informal spaces. They talked about their many
small experiences with management failure in the form of anecdotes, and they confirmed
each other’s feeling that the situation was critical. These informal dialogues took up a lot of
time and energy, but filled a real need. Informal chat is central to collective sensemaking.
Disagreements on possible remedies
In general, however, the employees disagreed on how to manage the situation. They
lacked a natural and legitimate forum in which to confront and give vent to their workplace
problems. The problems were also experienced as being somewhat vague in nature, and
often grounded in a lack of insight and judgement on the part of management, which
showed up in a series of small managerial failures which were hard for the employees to
analyse and identify.
Some employees applied a confrontational coping strategy (Costa & McCrea 1996; Le
Blanch, Jonge & Schaufeli 2000). They wished to confront the manager with their
dissatisfaction in formal meetings. These employees were often key persons in the
informal environment and possessed considerable knowledge of the problems concerned.
However, other persons with a more placatory coping strategy did not wish confrontation
and were worried about being seen as troublemakers. A feeling of helplessness began to
spread; the employees agreed that problems existed, but disagreed on what action to
A difficult meeting
Nevertheless, the respondents related that sooner or later the employees would manage
to air the managerial problems in the open, typically at a departmental meeting, or in the
relevant organisational unit. The key individuals in the informal environment, often two or
three persons, gave voice to the problems. Sometimes they criticised a few incidents,
while at other times they formulated more comprehensive criticism.
The managers reacted differently to such meetings: some suggested a job satisfaction
survey to document the problems. Others rejected the problems out of hand, while others
again gave plausible explanations of individual episodes, but failed to acknowledge that
there was a more fundamental problem. Some managers denied responsibility and
claimed that the problems stemmed from higher up in the management structure.
However, they declined to confront the upper management with the problems. There are
no examples of managers involving upper management in the departmental problems;
local managers tend to keep their problems local. As one interviewee put it: He makes
light of the problems and tries to keep them secret from other managers.
The persons interviewed described their managers as resistant to criticism. The manager
would deny the need for a different management style and claim that the criticism was
incorrect and based on misunderstandings. Sometimes the managers would claim that
only a few employees were apparently critical, perhaps due to some special problems that
these employees had, and which the manager would be willing to address. Between the
lines, the managers implied that the criticism came from the ‘weak’ employees.
The reaction of the key persons was anger. They felt that they had borne the burden of the
common criticism alone, since the rest of the staff failed to back them up at the formal
meeting. The other employees were silent or offered only lukewarm support. Such
meetings were often characterised by insecurity and fear, and nobody likes to be seen as
a weak professional. The employees enjoyed relatively secure positions and were worried
about the possibility of losing their jobs. As an interviewee put it: ‘The fear is that you might
look like someone who is not suitable for the job, not good enough or not strong enough.’ It
is not a part of the professional identity of knowledge workers to insist on feedback and
recognition, or to express the need for more meaning in the job. It is hard for them to stand
up and say that they need support, and to believe that the quality of their results depends
on good support and recognition.
The chat and gossip began again, but the key person changed strategy, since he or she
did not wish to be seen as having embarked on an individual crusade, when other
colleagues shared the criticism. Those employees who remained silent at the meeting
explained their lack of support by reference to their vulnerable situation. They required the
trust of the manager when distributing tasks, or perhaps had recently been on sick leave.
They felt a need to show stability and loyalty. Some of them might not believe in
confrontations and meetings. The situation now is that the employees have agreed that
management problems exist, but have failed to find solutions.
In further meetings, it might happen that managers promised to improve certain elements,
such as by offering to make themselves available for individual dialogue with employees
with ‘special needs’, who might need managerial support. This gave the employees the
impression that the management was willing to make special efforts for weak employees,
and nobody wished to be identified as such. Another example of managers’ ideas for
improvement was to initiate team-building seminars for employees only and the like.
However, the employees felt that such improvements were far removed from their needs.
One respondent explained: ‘What we need is basic social empathy and an understanding
of the need to support us in doing a good job.’
Many managers carried out surveys of job satisfaction, but the employees did not find that
such inquiries led to improvements. There are several reasons for this conclusion;
one is that managers failed to use the results as the basis for dialogue on the work
situation, but concluded merely that certain improvements were needed. As mentioned,
such improvements might take the form of a team-building seminar or a seminar with an
external consultant talking about ‘the necessity of humour’ – improvements which
employees saw as superfluous at best and disdainful at worst. Another reason for the
mistrust of surveys was the feeling that the questionnaires asked the wrong questions. A
question might for example be whether the employee was satisfied with his or her work
tasks. The employee could easily answer ‘yes’ even if he or she was greatly dissatisfied
with the working conditions - but managers concluded that job satisfaction was ‘high’, so
what was the problem? When such surveys fail to be used as the foundation for an in-
depth dialogue between managers and employees in a spirit of open-mindedness, they
become destructive from the employees’ point of view. They close down discussion,
instead of opening it up, and the problems become taboo. Furthermore, when such
surveys of employees’ managerial and working conditions have been carried out, the
managers in question can point to them as attempts from their side to respond to criticism.
This argument can also be used if the criticism continues. The interviews provided no
examples of employees who felt that the surveys had made a positive contribution to
improving their working situation.
Having attempted to address the problems; the employees abandoned the attempt to find
collective solutions, and stopped talking about it. A collective exhaustion began to take
Individualised survival strategies
When attempts to change the situation have been abandoned, employees tend to
withdraw mentally from the collective environment. The most active individuals take the
attitude that ‘Now it is up to someone else’. In general, individual employees begin to
concentrate on their own tasks and avoid taking part in co-ordination and communication,
or in matters of common interest in general. They cease to develop ideas and take
initiatives which could strengthen the common knowledge. They cease to communicate,
treating each other formally and like strangers, though with formal politeness. Daily social
routines fall apart. They eat their lunch in their offices instead of in the canteen, and cease
to talk about private matters. When possible, they find excuses to avoid participating in
planning meetings, and avoid participation in general. What had previously functioned to
promote social and professional integration ceases to work. Those who can work from
home do so more and more. They seek as little contact as possible with other participants
at the workplace. They cease to hope for change; they feel disappointed and disillusioned
through having failed to change the situation. Trust has turned into mistrust.
The respondents explained that it seemed as though the managers could not perceive the
hopeless situation, as long as the work was actually done and the formal system was
running. But the informal organisation had fallen apart.
Dissolution and exit
For a while, individual employees concentrated on their own tasks. Some found a
temporary relief in the lack of social interaction, as it gave them a feeling of being able to
concentrate on their ‘own’ tasks and avoid the problems. But after a while the loss of
meaning became burdensome and it became hard to maintain motivation. In this situation,
there was no longer a proper and supportive collegial culture to which to turn. Individual
employees reduced their job performance to a minimum. In sum, everyone concentrated
on their own survival. At this point some had already left the job, others were on sick leave,
some were looking for a new job, and others had adjusted to the situation but with a very
low level of commitment. According to the respondents, managers explained the
fluctuations in terms of coincidence, personal reasons, etc., and refused to see the pattern
involved. The employees explained the social dissolution as the result of a bad working
environment, but kept silent about it.
Section 5: Theoretical explanations of the results of
It is noteworthy that the respondents perceived the collective problems as being the most
serious problems. When informal social and professional interaction falls apart, work
becomes meaningless. The consequences of incompetent management are that a well-
functioning professional and social culture becomes fragmented and disintegrated. The
dominant logic of action becomes ‘personal survival’ by concentrating on one’s own tasks
and avoiding participation in general communication. This, however, is an enforced logic of
action, not one which is wished for, and the only way to survive in a fragmented culture.
Employees attempt to place the problems on the organisational agenda; they experience
rejection and give up. The social environment becomes deeply divided and falls apart. We
can understand these organisational processes by drawing parallels to what happens in
individual burn-out processes, (Siegrist 1996, Maslach & Leiter 1999, Maclach et.al 2001).
The respondents’ accounts of how incompetent management influenced the collective
environment resulted in a situation which I suggest could be termed collective burn-out.
What is burn-out?
Maslach (Maclach 1989), described the syndrome of burn-out as a psychological
syndrome which consists of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and impaired work
performance, in work which involves caring for other people. Emotional exhaustion means
feeling overworked and empty of emotional resources. Depersonalisation includes a
negative, insensitive or extremely distanced attitude to other people who receive caring or
nursing. Impaired work performance is followed by a feeling of decreasing competence
and success in working life. Later, in 2001, the concept of depersonalisation was
expanded to include cynicism. Cynicism involves a negative attitude and a mistrust of
organisations, groups and objects. (Shirom, 2003). The theory of burn-out has since been
expanded to encompass work in general, rather than just the caring professions.
Maslach shows what happen to individuals who suffer burn-out. In my research, it seems
clear that the same process can occur at a collective level.
Analysis of the empirical data shows that employees, after struggling for some time,
eventually became collectively exhausted. This state of exhaustion becomes visible at the
point in the process when the employees give up trying to achieve improvements. This is
especially noticeable in the fact that the informal organisation ceases to function socially
and professionally. In its place, a fragmented culture arises.
Cynicism reveals itself in the empirical data through the fact that the employees ceased to
show willingness to contribute to the community at the workplace. In addition, the
employees felt that they could no longer trust in the future and ceased to have faith in
positive changes. They took a distanced attitude to their work and avoid involvement in
organisational matters. They withdrew and acted strictly according to formal and
professional standards, doing only what was absolutely necessary. Cynicism is also
expressed through the fact that the employees sought individual survival strategies rather
than organisational improvements. They ceased to trust and no longer believed in the
sustainability of the collective social environment or its ability to find solutions. It is a
process that increasingly exhausts the collective culture.
Reduced work performance
The employees reduced their work performance and ceased to take initiatives and commit
themselves to anything beyond their own tasks at minimum level. Performing good work
seemed to be pointless and meaningless.
Imbalance between effort and reward
A deeper theoretical perspective on the reasons for collective burn-out has been given by
Siegrist’s theory of effort and reward (Siegrist 1996). Siegrist develops Maclach’s burn-out
theory in his effort-reward imbalance model. The main point of Siegrist’s theory is that
burn-out occurs when efforts are not met with appropriate rewards.
Following Siegrist, rewards can take three forms: 1) salaries 2) status control and 3) social
recognition. Reward in the form of salaries means appropriate payment for the work
performed, often expressed in the form of pay rises, special allowances or other types of
pay supplement. Status control means that you know what you should do to preserve or
raise your job status. Social recognition means that you receive confirmation of the fact
that you make a valuable contribution to the workplace of which you are a part. Social
recognition, according to Honneth (Honneth 2003), is not synonymous with praise;
recognition means receiving both positive feedback and criticism, so that you feel your
efforts are taken seriously and as such make sense. If work performance goes
unrewarded for a long period of time, burn-out is the result.
A recurrent theme in the empirical data is that the employees learned to give more than
they received. They contributed a great deal to production and development, were
committed to strategic questions and the like, but experienced an absence of reward –
indeed not just an absence, but being totally ignored by managers. They furthermore
contributed with great enthusiasm to the social and informal environment, but found that
this too was worthless, as no form of recognition resulted. In the long run, the lack of
recognition undermined their willingness to take part in the daily interaction, with personal
and collective exhaustion as the result.
Section 6: Implications for management research
Some managers are made managers because they are capable and skilled professionals
with plenty of experience in their professions. As far as the respondents were aware, most
of their managers had no formal management training, and as such, no theoretical
knowledge to apply to their jobs as managers. Although some of the managers possessed
managerial skills, the organisations failed to build up a sound and constructive
management culture which would be able to act according to the mantra: ’our employees
are our most important resource’. Nothing indicates that the organisations in question
possessed norms and rules to ensure that the managers’ most important task was to
secure optimal, inspirational and motivational conditions for the work of the employees,
which is the general teaching of modern management theory by e.g. Kotter (Kotter 1990)
and Bass (Bass 1998). On the contrary, it seemed that the managerial tasks were carried
out in a random fashion, and depended on the managers’ personal norms and ideas. This
is inadequate and results in damage to the organisation.
Imprudent management leading to collective burn-out is naturally not the result of any
malicious intent. On the contrary, there is every reason to focus on the managers’ own
management culture and on how the managers as a group assist or fail to assist each
other to perform their work in accordance with the principles of modern management,
which aims to create innovative and supportive working cultures. It may be assumed that
proper management requires an appropriate management culture which builds on norms
and policies directed at the practice of modern management. Individual managers require
support and must be held accountable for their management performance and their ability
to support the willingness of employees to do a good job. However, both management
discourse and many management consultants seem to focus exclusively on the
performance and skills of individual managers. Instead, I suggest that research should
concentrate on understanding the significance of management culture to the quality of
Section 7 Conclusion
On the basis of empirical studies of the effect of incompetent management, it has been
demonstrated that incompetent management leads to collective burn-out. Incompetent
management is characterised by the absence of modern management principles and by
the failure to carry out important organisational tasks such as ensuring recognition and
rewards, coordination and, in general, cultural integration. Following Kotter (Kotter 1990),
incompetent management can be said to be dominated by management rather than
leadership, and the managerial task is carried out at a very poor level. An understanding of
the importance of a good work culture, social relations, and collective sensemaking
through declared visions and recognition of effort is indeed missing. Further research is
required into the significance of management culture, rather than a one-sided focus on
managers’ individual skills, with the aim of learning more about how to raise the quality of
management and meet the managerial challenges presented by modern organisations.
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