The Bad Boss Experience

Yelling at an employeeThink about the jobs you’ve held. If you are like most people, you have had your share of “bad bosses.”  My first manager would warmly encourage us to come to her when problems arose. But the first time I did so, she screamed and threw a trash can across her glass office while I watched, terrified. I am confident I’m not the only one who has had a boss like that. Here are a few I’ll bet you recognize:

  • The Bully Boss– Bullies don’t supervise with guidance, they manage through fear and intimidation. The people who report to them feel nervous and distrustful, and may even worry about keeping their jobs. Finding ways to avoid being yelled at and belittled becomes more important than performance and productivity.
  • The Dreadful Communicator Boss—This boss may be bad at sharing information, communicating tasks, listening, or all three. They fail to give good instructions, and often contradict themselves if their initial instructions do not produce desired results. They may purposefully keep you in the dark because they don’t want anyone but them to have the full picture. When you come to them with questions or issues, they are so busy interrupting you that they don’t even listen to what you need.
  • The Demanding Boss—This boss often makes you feel that you just can’t win. In an effort to please their direct leader, they set or agree to unrealistic goals for the team, usually without even asking for input from the people who do the jobs. Instead, they announce the goals and the timeframe for achieving them. Then, they throw their people “under the bus,” blaming them when the goals are not attained.
  • The Micromanaging Boss—This boss doesn’t trust you because you might not think exactly like them. When assigning you a task to complete, they already have a preconceived notion of what ‘done’ looks like. Heaven forbid you try to apply any creativity to the task. They ask for frequent “check ins,” and use that time to edit or completely refocus your work. And when you deliver the completed task, they often ignore your work and simply redo it themselves.

(Many positions in an organization require the skills of being a good boss. In an earlier post we describe the challenge of being a Project Manager and a boss at the same time – “The Project Manager as Boss.”)

From Bad to Best

Experiences with bad bosses are frustrating. But we can use them to frame “what not to do” when we find ourselves responsible for leading a project or a team.  In addition, recent research in leadership effectiveness can inform our view of what a good boss looks like. Here are a few traits you may want to strive for in your own leadership:

  1. Authentic – Self-aware leaders show their real selves to their followers, building honest relationships with them. They know who they are and what they believe in. They act consistently in private and public. And they are able to put the mission and goals of the organization ahead of their own self-interest. Kevin Kruse further describes this attribute in “What is Authentic Leadership?“.
  1. Optimistic, Can Do Attitude—Optimistic leaders are inspiring communicators. They believe in a better future, a better way, and their “can do” attitude makes you believe it, too. They rally their followers to help them stay positive and keep the big picture in view, even when things go wrong. Check out “5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders.”
  2. Fair and Ethical—The fair and ethical leader has a clear code of conduct that demonstrates respect for the beliefs, values, and dignity of others. They promote an environment of open and honest communication, while showing their staff trust and respect. They create a culture in which employees feel comfortable voicing concerns and dealing with problematic issues. Linda Fisher Thorton has a good book on Amazon about “The Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.”
  1. Grants and Honors Autonomy—Most leaders want employees to take initiative, make decisions, and generate ideas. But the best leaders delegate effectively and help their employees define their responsibility. They provide enough information to allow the employee to be successful in the task. And they are careful not to undermine their employees’ decisions or take over the job when it isn’t going fast enough. Be careful to avoid autonomy-crushing behaviors like Jen Roberts describes in her article on “Five Leadership Mistakes You’re Making That Sabotage Employee Autonomy.”
  1. Provides Constructive and Reinforcing Feedback—Strong employee engagement is directly aligned with a leader’s ability to give honest feedback in a helpful way. This ability is one of the most important leadership skills and requires that the leader is comfortable giving both positive and negative feedback. This skill correlates strongly with the leader’s overall feeling of self-confidence. For more information, read Joe Folkman’s article on “The Best Gift Leaders Can Give: Honest Feedback.”
  1. Demonstrates a Sense of Humor—A sense of humor is a key to success at work, building trust, boosting morale, driving creative thinking, and increasing productivity. Researchers have long known that humor can be a potent stress buster. Leaders who can laugh in response to a conflict experience a cognitive shift from convergent to divergent thinking, where multiple ideas can be considered. Leaders who use humor effectively also tend to be more approachable—and the more approachable you are, the more honest and open people will be with you. Finally, leaders who use humor effectively create an upbeat atmosphere that encourages thinking outside of the box and encourages employee interaction. A good article for further exploration of this is “10 Reasons Why Humor Is A Key to Success at Work” by Jacquelyn Smith.

Have you survived a bad boss? Are you striving to be a good boss?  Share your thoughts and tips on how to be a better boss.

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