12 Traits of Bad Bosses and What To Do Instead

We seem wired to learn more from adversity than we do from smooth sailing... what we learn from our own bosses is no exception.

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Bad Bosses Bully
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with a friend and former colleague who has just started his first chief executive role.  He’d invited me to share any insights I had from my own experience transitioning from senior manager to CE. It created an opportunity for me to reflect on my own leadership journey – from two perspectives:

  • How my first few months as a new CE felt; and
  • What I had learnt from my own bosses along the way

As I reflected, I was reminded of the old truism: you learn more about leadership from your bad bosses – who clarify what not to do, than you do from your great bosses.

Here are 12 things I learnt from my worst bosses – along with what to do instead!

#1 Bad bosses are aloof

I had one boss who pigeon-holed me based on my job title before she met me.  Nothing I did could change her view that my skills only suited the role I was already in.  As she brought people onto the team to do roles that I could have done, my confidence plummeted.  My current role was an accident of fate – I was the only person left standing after a major IT service failed, and I wanted to help out in whatever way the organization needed.  But when the dust settled, a decent conversation with me to find out what my skills were could have made a real difference, both to my own engagement and to the success of the whole project.

Great bosses get to know their staff.  They actively explore their team-members motivations and what makes them tick.  And as a consequence, their staff feel respected, valued and engaged.  Ultimately, great bosses are able to make changes within the team that play to everybody’s strengths, to the benefit of everyone.

#2 Bad bosses micromanage

Bad Bosses Superior
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

If a bad boss delegates (which they almost never do) he or she almost certainly delegates the solution rather than the problem – outlining how the work is to be done, rather than what the goal is.

Great bosses can micromanage, if they have to.  But it isn’t their default position.  Great bosses are highly skilled at situational management – they assess the scale of the task, the capability of the individual, and establish their own risk tolerance for failure before they delegate.  In other words, if they hand over responsibility, and they have a level of comfort with the skills of the individual, they will expect the individual to problem solve and work through their own process.

In fact, in some circumstances, they will even expect you to drop the ball – because they know it’s the best way for you to learn.

#3 Bad bosses gossip

I had a boss early in my career who spent most of our one on one meetings complaining about my peers.  Initially, I was quite excited to be trusted – to be in her confidence.  It was exhilarating.  However it wasn’t long before I began to feel uncomfortable.  I knew things I would’ve preferred not to, and I began to worry that she was having similar discussions about me in their one on one meetings.

Great bosses have integrity.  They never say anything about someone that they would not say directly to that person.  They maintain confidences, and focus on the task at hand, rather than the personalities at play.

#4 Bad bosses blame others for mistakes and missteps

Bad Bosses Blame
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

Including their own.  These bosses often gain a reputation for being ‘teflon coated’:  that s**t doesn’t stick.  No matter how deeply embroiled they were in a project that goes wrong, there is always someone else ‘more at fault' than them.  They also have an uncanny knack for switching roles just before the proverbial hits the fan.

Great bosses, by comparison, own their mistakes – and those of their team-members – and focus on what can be learnt and how to make it right.  In doing so they strengthen the resilience of their team and create a culture of continuous improvement.

#5 Bad bosses think they’re brilliant

Bad Bosses
Insight – by Tasha Eurich

I’m currently reading Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World by Tasha Eurich.  It’s great!  But my favourite bit is right on the front cover, courtesy of a review from Chip Heath:

“Fascinating… buy a copy for yourself and another to leave, anonymously, on your boss’s desk”

We’ve all had that boss – absolutely convinced he or she is the greatest leader to walk upon this earth…  And yet they so obviously aren’t.

Great bosses, on the other hand, practice humility.  They seek feedback and constructive criticism.  They don’t assume they are the smartest guy or girl in the room.  They make space for other people’s views and actively seek out ways to give other people the opportunity to shine.

#6 Bad bosses are self-promoting

I had one boss who never missed an opportunity to take credit for great results in a way that made it seem that he was entirely responsible for the success.  I’m not even sure he knew he was doing it.  The worst part was that we were all in the room!  He was so confident that none of us would speak up to correct him that he would even list specific tasks that he (hadn’t) completed and information he (hadn’t) learnt along the way that had actually been completely the responsibility of someone else!

The end result was that we felt disrespected and undervalued.  If he hadn’t also been in a position of power, we would almost certainly have tried to find a way to let him fail.  We certainly weren’t about to go ‘above and beyond’ for him.

Great bosses, by comparison, seldom take credit.  And if they must (or risk being rude) they always reflect most of the kudos back to the team.   As a result, they have people clamoring to work for them, and loyalty that cannot be bought.

#7 Bad bosses are emotionally volatile

Bad Bosses Volatile
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

We called him Mr Shouty.  On any given day, you simply didn’t know which version of the boss was going to come in the door – the nice one, or the monster.  He had no ability to regulate his emotional responses, and thought it was acceptable to vent his frustrations on whoever happened to be in the vicinity.

So his people avoided him like the plague.  As a consequence, he didn’t find out about things that would have made his job a lot easier. His team tried to ‘cope’ for as long as possible before escalating issues because they were scared.  You can’t lead if you don’t know what’s going on.

By comparison, great bosses are highly skilled at managing their emotions.  This doesn’t mean they don’t have them, or that they aren’t affected by them, but they are able to find appropriate outlets, they understand their own hot-buttons, they have a support network to turn to when they need to, and their own self-awareness (what I would refer to as mindfulness) allows them to create a time-gap between an event (say loss of a major client) and their response.  Even if it is as simple as taking three deep breaths.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to put the emotion to one side, deal with the situation, and then resolve the emotional element later – with a bit of distance.

#8 Bad bosses withhold information from their team

Bad Bosses Information
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

Usually this happens when someone’s been promoted to management from a subject-matter-expert role and they haven’t made the transition to leadership well.  I had a boss who believed that knowledge was power, and he was going to hold all of it until it suited him to dish it out…  even if that meant you worked your butt off on a project that had already been cancelled!

Levels of initiative and engagement plummeted, suspicion soared, and team members started behaving the same way – either making up information because the didn’t have any, or harboring what information they did have and not sharing it with team-mates who needed to know.

Great bosses communicate information as soon as they can, especially when they know it is relevant for delivery of results.  Yes, life is busy, and it can sometimes be hard to get the message across in a timely way, AND it’s extra work.  But knowledge is the oil that keeps an organization running smoothly – ignore this at your peril.

#9 Bad bosses talk more than they listen

You know the type… you can’t get a word in edge-wise.  You just wanted to let them know about something that happened on the project, and you’re getting chapter and verse about their own experience, what they did, what they would do, what you should do, how busy they are…

Great bosses, by comparison, listen more than they speak.  This requires discipline, humility, patience and most of all, a genuine interest in other people.  Without taking the time to listen, you can never get vital information about culture, engagement, performance and you can’t build empathy/compassion for your people, because you don’t understand what makes them tick.

#10 Bad bosses demand obedience

Unconditionally.

Bad Bosses
Photo: Pixabay/stevepb

They don’t want to know about your great idea, they don’t want the information you have about why that approach won’t work.  They know best, and it’s their way or the highway.  Sometimes this comes from a lack of experience – and sometimes it stems from jaded ‘over-experience’.  Either way the result is the same.  Team members feel like cogs in a machine – not living breathing humans with great ideas, passion and enthusiasm!

Great bosses understand their own limitations, and just as importantly, understand that they are fallible and can do make mistakes.  Consequently, they value their team’s input to problem solving, and understand that not only is the solution likely to be stronger as a consequence of having more ‘heads’ working on it – the execution will be better too.

#11 Bad bosses have ‘favourites’

Whether intentional or not, some bosses have favourites, and these individuals seem to get better things… better pay, better projects, better perks, first choice of the window seat in the office move…  This does terrible things for morale – including for the supposed favourites!  In an ideal world, this favoritism would at least be based on performance, but usually it isn’t – it’s random and arbitrary.  Which leaves everyone wondering what’s going on.  If your staff are trying to earn your favor, they aren’t going to bring you the important information you need to hear, and they will be distrustful and suspicious of their colleagues.

On the other hand, great bosses treat everyone fairly, because they take the time to get to know their team  – whether they’re ‘a-players’ or ‘c-players’.  Ultimately, they understand that everyone’s contribution is essential to success, and that team’s thrive on diversity and trust.  Harvard Business Review has done an excellent analysis of the perils of playing favourites, and have some excellent tips on how to ensure you don’t slip into this dangerous pitfall…

#12 Bad bosses put themselves before the team… and the organization

I had a boss a few years ago who spent so much time covering her own butt, it was a wonder anything got done.  Her entire approach to our work was to uber-manage the risk of something going wrong and being tracked back to her.  She wouldn’t sign off on things, she didn’t make decisions, she handled all the high-profile stuff if it would make her look good, and handed it off as a ‘development opportunity’ if she was worried it might back-fire.

Consequently, a bunch of really great alternative ideas were never implemented, system and process improvements didn’t occur, and team members left the organization in droves…

Great bosses?  They know they are only as successful as the team around them – not just their direct reports, but also their peers and colleagues across the organization.  They own their mistakes, give other people credit, and ultimately do what is in the best interests of the organization…  which sometimes means they take one for the team, and resign.  Nobody said being the boss was easy.

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Rebecca Elvy
I am a human systems futurist committed to making organisations and individuals more effective through the power of mindful, insightful and proactive leadership. I fundamentally believe that all people have the potential within them to achieve greatness. With my insights into the way systems work (and how to change them), how people communicate, and the way our own brains work (or don’t work) I strive to unleash this potential for the benefit of humankind.