Bad work environment is all about assholes

Reading time 4 min. – Listening time 7 min.

This article is written in response to articles in Globalnyt about poor working environment in the NGO industry. Let me start by apologizing for the use of profanity in the headline. But there is a good explanation for this, which follows below.

First of all, thanks to Globalnyt for great articles about the working environment in the NGO industry. It’s good to shake up your self-image and self-obesity. But there are a few dimensions missing, I think.

We should address demystifying working in the NGO industry. The kind of blatantly bad management, worried and stressed and sometimes self-sufficient colleagues uncovered in the articles are not unique to the NGO world. It exists in every industry. In all work environments. The NGO industry is not alone in being burdened with ‘smart people’ who invent tasks for themselves to survive.

There seems to be a perception that working in the NGO world is extraordinarily meaningful and therefore there shouldn’t be the kind of workplace issues that other industries struggle with.

Firstly, the NGO industry is not unique when it comes to meaningful work. Just ask educators, teachers, nurses, social care assistants. Or look at the Danish National Church, which should represent the ultimate in humanity, but which has been revealed to also house a rather inflammatory work environment.

Secondly, there’s no reason to assume that managers and employees are better at their jobs than managers and employees in other industries just because the work is labeled as ‘meaningful’.

You miss the mark when ‘more money’ is pointed out as the solution to the misery, as is the case in Global News’ interview with Professor Bjarke Oxlund from Roskilde University. Not because more money for NGO work is bad or undesirable, but because more money is not the solution to the problems of miserable managers and stressed employees. In this order. Good leadership is a prerequisite for a good work environment. Even when the economic environment is difficult. Of course, long-term financial security is a good thing, but poor management and stressful work environments can also be found in workplaces with a guaranteed budget.

Incidentally, the NGO industry is not unique when it comes to project financing. But project funding, as a basic condition, does not in itself lead to poor management and a bad working environment. As a basic condition, project funding is known by both managers and employees from day one. The question is how management under such conditions – and in general – practices ‘servant leadership’, where leadership is not about the leader, but about the common good, where the well-being and development of employees is the cornerstone of innovation and optimizing the organization’s ability to deliver results within the framework given at any given time.

Asshole leadership

Good leadership is not rocket science. It has as its cornerstone common decency towards other people, care and respect and consistent recognition of employees. Such a foundation stone costs nothing. Knowledge, methods and techniques can be built on top of this to optimize management work. Just as employees can become better at their jobs through various forms of learning. But if the manager belongs to the ‘total assholes’ (the term borrowed from a DR documentary), then even expensive management courses won’t help.

‘Asshole management’ may seem a bit streetwise to some, but I’m not overcome by a momentary penchant for coarse language. When I read the first article about leadership behavior in the NGO “Save the Orangutan” in Global News, it struck me that we are dealing with a stellar example of the kind of ‘asshole leadership’ that is now so wonderfully unfolded in the mentioned DR documentary and also excellently described and discussed in an article in the online magazine Zetland back in December 2021 in the wake of the documentary ‘Sexism behind the screen’ about the work environment at TV2 under Michael Dyrby’s leadership.

The Zetland article reminds us, among other things, of the book ‘The Zero Assholes Rule’ written by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton. The book was published in English in 2007 and was published in Danish in 2009. So the phenomenon is not a new realization – and neither is the choice of words – but unfortunately it is too often overlooked and replaced with a tendency to make the issue of poor work environment more complicated than necessary.

The article quotes a Finnish leadership coach Bo-Magnus Salenius as saying: “Assholes often believe that people are either with me or against me. And that the rules don’t apply to them”. Assholes are everywhere and at every level, but as the article highlights, one kind of asshole is worse than others: those who become bosses. With reference to Bo-Magnus Salenius, the article points out that assholes just do what they’ve always done, but that it only has consequences when they sit in the boss chair. In the ‘Save the Orangutan’ story, this is precisely the case.

The responsibility lies with the board

Tackling poor health and safety in the NGO industry doesn’t start from scratch. With the knowledge we have today about what creates a bad work environment – and the opposite – it’s unbelievable to shout for more money as the solution to having assholes in management positions here and there.

Many NGOs with employees are too small to have union clubs and shop stewards, which should be the framework for a collective rebellion against asshole management. The responsibility for proper governance in our small and medium-sized NGOs starts and ends at the board table. Not just the general overall responsibility that formally lies with every association board, but the very specific responsibility that the organization’s management practices a management style characterized by openness and honesty, where the boss and his/her ideas can also be criticized without fear of reprisals, where respect and recognition of each other and each other’s work is the basic tone.

When management and boards of directors can’t practice openness and integrity on their own, it’s good that Globalnyt and others can shake things up.

The way is paved for more debate about a better working environment. There needs to be so much clear and loud focus that the assholes are consistently kicked out and affected employees don’t have to act under pseudonyms.

Along the way, we should remind each other that it costs nothing to behave properly.

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