Good Boss Bad Boss

Posted on 4th Feb 2019

Actually, bosses don’t fit into just two buckets, good and bad. There are plenty of in-between buckets, but let’s keep it simple for the sake of discussion. We’ve all had a good boss or two – hopefully. We’ve also had some bad bosses – unfortunately. I have to admit my fascination with bad bosses because I naively assume that bosses should be good. To the contrary, bad ones pop up all the time, inflict their damage on people and organizations, and often continue in their jobs despite all the difficulties and complaints they generate. Why is that?

Tolstoy famously begins his novel Anna Karenina with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By this he means happy families meet a number of basic criteria: Love, respect, responsibility, cooperation, integrity. But if any one of these criteria isn’t met, unhappiness follows in its own particular way.

The same is true of bosses. When running a workshop on management skills, I asked the participants to detail what makes for a good boss. You can guess their responses – fair, considerate, knowledgeable, concerned, patient, empowering, organized, open-minded, supportive. When asked what makes for a bad boss, everyone laughed and groaned and snickered. The conversation became much livelier and examples started flowing. They noted every variety of bad boss from micromanagers to sexual creeps to verbal abusers to tone deaf know-it-alls to passive-aggressive saboteurs to egomaniacs to incompetents. Think Michael Scott in The Office, who brilliantly displays all of these managerial flaws in one character.

I read a recent op-ed piece by Charles Krauthammer in which he offered the “Krauthammer Conjecture”, i.e., athletes don’t feel as good when they win as they feel bad when they lose (Washington Post, 6/30/17). Actually, this is not a conjecture but a well-researched fact in the field of psychology. Our egos are more bruised by negative experiences than bolstered by positive experiences. By extension, working for a good boss can be wonderful, even life-changing, but working for a bad boss can be excruciating and sometimes devastating.

Yet here’s the thing: Good bosses typically underestimate their skills and their positive impact, while bad bosses typically think they’re good bosses dealing with bad employees. Ignoring and twisting feedback is a big factor in what makes bad bosses so bad. They’re often blind to their shortcomings.

What’s even more striking is that organizations are often blind, too, so they keep bad bosses in place – sometimes for a long, long time. So here’s my shout-out to every reasonable business owner, President/CEO, and department head: Bad managers are poison in an organization. They hurt people and productivity. Please keep an eye out for them and replace them as soon as you possibly can. Don’t ignore them, think of them as irreplaceable, fall for their “convincing” explanations, put them in charge of some other unit, or pretend everything’s OK when it’s not. If the bad boss seems trainable or coachable, then go that route while holding them accountable to change. If they’re not likely to change, then move them out. Company morale will improve, productivity will improve, adherence to values will improve and, best of all, you’ll be able to bring in a good boss. Ahhh . . . .

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019