In yesterday’s post, I shared the characteristics and practices of The Best Bosses I’ve Ever Had. Today I will reluctantly spend time reflecting on the worst ones of the bunch and what made them so. Of course, I won’t name names or give enough background to identify with certainty who I’m talking about. After 40 years of working, I’ve had many bosses across numerous roles at several companies and organizations. Heck, I’ve had ten bosses in ten years with my current employer even though I’ve only been in three roles and departments. Such is corporate life. I lost count long ago on how many I’ve had over time. So for those that know me, don’t miss the point of the article by trying to figure out who the “inspiration” for each item below may have been.
It can be assumed that the flip side of the characteristics of my best bosses would make the list of my worst bosses, but I won’t be that easy on myself in writing this. Some of the items below are the opposites of the “Best Bosses” behaviors, but not all. I have a different set of people in mind for these points and their characteristics drive the items below. So let’s get to it.
The worst bosses I’ve ever had:
Are self-centered. I don’t tolerate very well having to be around those who think predominantly of themselves. Give me a leader who understands and lives the values of servant leadership any day, but not one who seems to drift along in his/her own little world of “what’s in it for me?” or “look at me!”
Constantly create or respond to one fire drill after another. This may show itself in unreasonable, last-minute demands of dropping everything and doing something entirely different “by the end of the day.” It may come as an emergency handed-down by my boss’s boss or someone else higher up, but that is no excuse for perpetuating the issue of allowing last-minute, random questions and events to determine what work gets done. Management that follows this pattern shows no sign of having, understanding, or following a cohesive strategy for accomplishing the business’s objectives. Life in such a business is one big ongoing game of Whack-a-Mole.
Distrust their own people. Why would you hire someone you distrust? Why would you distrust someone you trusted enough to hire? Why would you continue to employ someone you distrust? It all makes no sense to me. This may be displayed by managers who refuse to delegate responsibilities and corresponding authority to their people to carry out needed tasks. It may be evidenced by physical signs of keeping employees away from anything of value. It may come via typical surveillance methods or asking others to spy on anyone suspected of wrongdoing. It may show in overzealous methods of required documentation or using technology to monitor nearly every minute or keystroke of an employee’s time on the clock. It may be evidenced by blocking common websites such as social media sites or shopping destinations. People who distrust never cease to amaze me at the creative ways they devise to try to justify their fears.
Refuse to address personnel issues. This is maddening and kills the morale of the remainder of the team. Deal with issues fast, managers, or you may need to be dealt with next – either that or you’ll find yourself losing your good people because of your inability to solve the issues arising from your problem employees. And please don’t place the burden of dealing with problem employees on their peers. That isn’t what they are hired, paid or trained to do.
Disrespect their people. This might be shown in a number of ways, from public condemnation and criticism to unreasonable time demands that encroach on their people’s personal lives, to speaking poorly of their people to others outside their department, to being offensive in word and deed through inappropriate language or physical behavior, or other ways imagined only by minds that I cannot understand. I could try to play psychologist here and claim that such behavior is a sign of low self-esteem – demeaning others to help one feel better about himself – but I’ll leave that analysis to others more qualified. Regardless of the reason behind the behavior, it’s wrong.
Fail to lead. This can happen when someone is unqualified and ill-equipped for the role, unsure of what to do himself, and therefore unable to guide others. It can come from the wishful thinking that laissez-faire, hands-off leadership will magically bring out the best in others. It may come from those trying too hard to be friends with their subordinates. It may come from a boss who is already disengaged himself or who is in disagreement with those above him/her in the org chart. Businesses need people who know how to lead and who are not afraid to do so using sound principles of leadership – not dehumanizing, authoritarian abuses of power.
Must have everything their way. Bosses must make the final call on some decisions, but to think that all or nearly all things must be done the manager’s way is surely the wrong approach. It discounts the knowledge, talents, ideas and innovations engaged employees can bring to the table. It stifles motivation and devalues the employees.
Micromanage. Maybe some people need to be micromanaged, but I’m not one of them. Anyone who tries to do this to me is just annoying. I doubt I’m different than most employees in this regard. That said, I concede that short periods of keeping a closer-than-normal eye on an employee may be in order when poor performance is documented and greater accountability is in order. Still, it seems to me that if a boss spends all of his time peering over the shoulders of others to make sure they’re doing things a certain way, then that boss may not be necessary to the business.
Try to keep employees from advancing. One of the potential downfalls of doing one’s job really well is that it can sometimes result in employers keeping you in that role even when you want to grow, learn, and experience other roles, be they lateral or vertical changes. A boss who is concerned with the professional development of employees will go out of his way to encourage such growth and experiences. Think of it, bosses, as your opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives, careers, and even the families of many people over time – a far greater contribution to the world in the long run that pigeonholing people into roles they are ready to leave. If you try to “keep them in their place” too long, they may just leave the company for greener pastures, and then you’ve just blown it for the company permanently.
Are rarely available to their employees. Too many companies end up filling the daily calendar of bosses with back-to-back meetings all day every day. Not only does this likely keep the boss from doing much that’s actually productive, but it keeps him/her from being available to the very people most likely to want and need his/her presence periodically throughout the day. Temporarily removing oneself from the area or occasionally closing an office door to focus on a task is understandable and reasonable, but rarely being around or always being behind an uninviting closed door creates an unhealthy barrier between bosses and their people.
Discourage employee engagement. What I’m thinking of here is when a boss thinks that only he/she can do some things, failing to delegate in the best interests of the business. The idea that only people at a certain level should make decisions or do certain things creates an “us vs. them” mentality rather than a team approach. I’ve witnessed this in businesses and volunteer organizations where, oddly, volunteer engagement is discouraged in favor of staff-only decision making and execution.
Withhold vital information from employees. There are times when company leadership determines that certain information about the business must remain hidden until some specified time at which it is unveiled. That’s understandable, especially for a publicly-traded business that must follow strict laws. However, there are times when bosses at their own discretion choose to hide from employees information that the employees may deem very important to their work or career decisions. Consideration for the employees should take precedence in such situations.
Make you dread going to work. When your thoughts during your morning shower start the day by dreading going in to work, imagining the potential conflict or irritants awaiting, you know you’ve reached a point where either a major change in the relationship needs to happen, or it’s time to move to a different position. On the contrary, working for a great boss makes it a pleasure to be there today and for the foreseeable future. If your non-work time is starting to be filled with negative thoughts, hindering your personal life as well, it’s time for change.
Overall, I have been fortunate with more jobs than not in the kinds of bosses I’ve had for the past 40 years. There have been scenarios, however, where I have painfully been reminded by experience of the common maxim that people go to a new job because of the work, but they leave a job because of the management. That is true all too often. Sadly, the very managers most guilty of the negative behaviors and characteristics mentioned above are also the most clueless about their behavior, its negative impact on people and, ultimately, the impact on the businesses they are employed to serve.
For bosses reading this, I encourage you to look over these traits and the ones listed in yesterday’s post about my best bosses. Do an honest self-evaluation. Give yourself kudos for the positive qualities you think you regularly demonstrate. Make note of the negative ones where you should improve. If you’re really brave, initiate some 360-degree feedback from subordinates, peers and supervisors for a more complete analysis. Then pick one or two areas for improvement and make a plan to improve. Grab an accountability partner to help you in the cause. Don’t focus only on your weaknesses; that’s unnecessary and depressing. Acknowledge and celebrate your strengths. Do this kind of evaluation at least annually and, if you’re in a better place a year from now, you’re doing well. Keep it up.
For employees reading this, especially if you see more negative than positive qualities in your current boss, you have some decisions to make. Do you stick it out with a poor boss in order to keep doing work you love, to keep working with great coworkers, or to maintain other benefits of the role? Do you risk addressing the most important issues with the boss, unsure of what his/her reaction may be? Do you chance the nuclear option of attempting to go over the boss’s head to his/her supervisor with your concerns? (Be very careful about doing that.) You have to make those calls yourself. I default to the approach of privately addressing the issue with the boss as the most direct and proper method, even if it does have potential negative consequences.
Maybe you have other characteristics you’ve experienced in your worst bosses. If you have some to add to my list above, feel free to do so in a comment. I’d love to hear about them.
Here’s hoping for a brighter future with great bosses!