Nobody wants to be a bad boss. At least most people don’t want to be. If this is true, why do we hear so much about bad bosses? Sometimes it seems like everyone we know has a bad boss.

An Ounce of Perception…

Let’s consider that not all bosses we perceive to be bad, are bad. Many authority figures throughout the years have abused their power, set bad examples, and have led many of us to be rightly suspicious of authority.

Bosses are often guilty of our worst assumptions, until they prove themselves to be innocent over time. For this reason there are likely fewer bad bosses than it appears.

If we begin a new career with the mindset that our boss is going to be an ass, we are going to notice every bad thing they do. If we assume they are going to be strict, or unreasonable, or not good listeners, we are going to act accordingly and not ask for some important things. When we don’t ask, we don’t receive.

This further cements the idea in our mind that we’re working for a bad boss—who is strict, unreasonable, and doesn’t listen anyway.

End of disclaimer. Even after allowing for bad perceptions of good bosses, plenty of bad bosses still abound. Why? Let’s explore some possibilities.

They Never Learned

Trying isn’t everything. Not everyone who tries to be a good boss is a good boss, or will be a good boss. It doesn’t matter how hard someone tries if they are practicing ineffective methods. You can have the best made screwdriver in the world, but you will never get a lug nut off a wheel with a screwdriver. Yet, you can exert much effort trying.

So a bad boss can happen if they never learned how to be a boss in the first place.

Sometimes employees get promoted based on merit alone. This is often a good thing, but not always. I have personally seen great salespeople get promoted to management or training positions and fail miserably.

They excelled at selling, but were not innately adept at leading other salespeople or teaching others. I’ve seen this pattern repeated with other positions across various companies. Sometimes a small company may elevate one of their friends or kin to a leadership position despite the fact they lack such skills.

A bad boss can happen if they never learned how to be a boss in the first place Click To Tweet

In summary, sometimes bad bosses happen simply because they didn’t learn how to be good bosses. They might be good people using bad methods, and that makes them bad bosses.

They Never Unlearned

Everyone knows how to be a boss! We learned it from movies and TV. In the 50’s we needed only to dress up, look neat and clean, give good, firm handshakes, and refuse to hire anyone who didn’t.

In the 60’s we had to avoid hiring long-haired people, or being one of them ourselves. The next decade brought us the saying, “Behind Every Good Boss there is a Great Secretary.”

It could be found inked on mugs, stationery, and other office paraphernalia back in the 70’s. Secretaries would proudly wear this saying on the t-shirts that their boss’s bought for them.

Evidently this relationship sometimes went too far, so in the 80’s bosses just sexually harassed people, or played sexual harassment videos (on VHS).

Then, in the 90’s, bosses simply sent out memos and asked you repeatedly if you had received them.

All kidding aside, many bosses are profoundly influenced by pop culture and societal expectations, even when they don’t necessarily hold those values themselves. Each era adds its own set of myths and assumptions to the mix, but the perceptions that seem to withstand the test of time are that good bosses give orders, are always punctual, make sure their employees are on time, or give them a good lecture when they are not.

Further influencing the corporate landscape in 2017 is all the buzz about bosses learning to “deal with” millennials, as if the youngest generation of today’s workforce is another species from another planet, as opposed to an extension of our evolving culture.

Many of these pop culture snapshots of bosses, as fun as these might be to watch within the context of an entertainment setting, bear little resemblance to the dynamics of real-life career settings.

Some bosses need to unlearn what they think they know about leadership, how they think they’re supposed to act, and then replace these assumptions with the specific skills and strategies that work for their teams.

The Pendulum Effect

Many good people want to become bosses because they truly believe they can run things better than their current boss. When the opportunity arises, they post for a power position and get hired.

A common mistake made by these naïve individuals, especially when it’s their first leadership position, is to make too many changes too quickly. They operate under the assumption that if the former boss was bad, then the opposite of everything they did is good practice. They believe they become good bosses by doing the opposite of nearly everything their bad boss did.

Since bad bosses have at least some good ideas, zealously adhering to an extreme opposite style often produces its own set of caveats. Executives observe the chaos, erroneously decide that the old way was better, and then replace this new bad boss with a bad boss similar to the first one. This all-too-familiar cycle can play itself out in companies for decades, or for centuries in politics.

Good bosses can steady the swinging pendulum by first acknowledging everything the previous boss was doing right, and allowing their new sense of direction to emerge from that foundation. Change must happen, but change initiatives need to be implemented intelligently in order for their impact to be accurately appraised.

Smart, sustainable change usually doesn’t happen overnight.

Smart, sustainable change usually doesn’t happen overnight Click To Tweet

They are Too Assertive

Good leadership doesn’t happen without assertiveness, but bullies make bad bosses.

According to one theory, bully bosses might be cashing in their “gray stamps,” a concept adapted from a branch of psychology known as Transactional Analysis.

Peter Senge, in his best selling book, “A Dance of Change,” described gray stamps like this:

“Gray stamps are an all-too-common mental checkmark that people accumulate from all the petty hurts and betrayals that we bury within ourselves. They can’t dump it on the person who provoked it, and they can’t forget it, so they build up gray stamps in their minds. Enough gray stamps makes a book, entitling the redeemer to a guilt-free act of abusiveness toward someone else.

“Most gray stamps are negotiable. You can collect them at work, and cash them in at home at the expense of the spouse, the kid, or the dog.”

If this theory is true, bad bosses could be saving up the gray stamps they collect from their spouse, their kids, their dogs, or their other job and cashing them in on unwitting employees. Perhaps this isn’t an issue of being too assertive, but rather expressing their anger towards individuals who had no part in provoking it.

Gray stamps may not be the thing driving every bad boss’s irrational behavior, but bad bosses who want to be good bosses need to maintain an awareness of this possibility—and be careful not to misdirect unrelated anger at their employees.

Not Assertive Enough

In the modern office setting, you are much more likely to encounter a boss who is not assertive enough, or not very good at clearly communicating direction.

All bosses have expectations of what makes a good employee. Good bosses communicate those expectations effectively and take the time to ensure their employees understand their desires. Bad bosses do not. A good boss might say something like, “during times of heavy workload we expect you to stay late, and even come in on weekends.”

A bad boss may still have such expectations, but will not effectively communicate them to their employee. Bad bosses often say to themselves (or others), “He should just know”, or “I’ll just wait and see if she does the right thing.” The “right” thing, of course, was never told to the employee.

It’s not always a lack of assertiveness that drives this type of bad boss’s behavior. Sometimes they do these things to “test” their employees, to see if they live up to some arbitrary code of conduct.

There is no justification for this.

Consider what would be said of a school teacher who gave their students a test, but did not teach them the material, neglect to inform them of its importance, and not give them a chance to study for it. Would we call that school teacher a good teacher, or a bad teacher?

Once a Bad Boss, Always a Bad Stigma

This circles back around to perception. Bosses who desire to improve, and take the necessary steps to improve, usually do improve.

Despite a former bad boss’s transformation to a better boss, or a good boss—perceptions take much longer to change.

If you are a former bad boss we encourage you to persevere in this new direction. Perhaps even demonstrate your commitment to your employees’ success with something tangible, such as a workplace happiness app.

If you are an employee who believes that you work for a bad boss, be open to the idea that many bad bosses do change after they receive good feedback and the right training. Be certain not to overlook any positive changes in their behavior, especially if your company is undergoing a change initiative or is actively seeking to change their company culture.

Bad bosses, and entire company cultures have been transformed. Yours could be next.


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By | April 20th, 2017|Company Culture|

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