Bad Bosses Teach How to Be a Good One

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Bad Bosses

There have been several examples of bad bosses on television in recent years, from Michael Scott on The Office to Selina Meyer on VEEP to Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons to Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. There have certainly been a lot of horrible bosses in my life. But bad bosses (like good ones) can offer valuable lessons and teach their observers how to be a good one.

Thanks to all the horrible bosses endured through the years. They helped me evolve into a great boss by setting an example of what not to do and fostering a determination to do better by staff members. Actually, with so many examples of poor management in my careers, there has been a wealth of training.

As Christina Aguilera sang years ago in Fighter, the negative experiences made “me that much smarter.” While I can do without seeing them again, I, too, want to thank some former bosses for making me stronger, more confident and supportive of anyone being lead as a manager or team lead. Here are lessons learned from some egregious bad bosses:

  • Staff members might not do things the same way you would, but that does not make it wrong. One boss always rewrote whatever articles staff members drafted and presented them back with catty comments like “I didn’t like the way you did it, but at least you saved me time doing the research.” She played with my self-esteem and had me convinced I could not do anything right. Since then, I have had staff do projects completely differently than I would have done them. But, if the project meets expectations and presents the information accurately, who is to say your way is better? If you do need to change things staff did, make sure they understand why the changes were made (and salvaging the boss’s ego is not an acceptable answer).
  • Be there if your team needs help with issues. I talked to my boss about a project that was stalled and asked for help, a rare request from me. For more than two months, I followed up weekly and he kept doing nothing. When the deadline for implementation finally approached, the questions got answered with no time to resolve the problems for which the team was then blamed. In another situation, I asked a different bad boss to accompany me to a meeting with me that promised to be contentious; he replied that he would not stick his neck out. My former staff all knew if asked to step in, I will. If you need me to attend a meeting as back up, just ask.
  • Always be polite and respectful. This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many bosses get so puffed up with the grandiosity of their role they expect everyone to kowtow to their whims and cancel anything they were doing for their beck and call. One woman, who actually yelled at me in front of people, was known for bullying her staff as well as expecting anything on their calendars to be cancelled immediately if she needed something, whether critical or not. An emergency is one thing, but daily fire drills show a lack of respect for others’ time.
  • Be honest and forthright about forthcoming changes. The rumor mill usually does a good job of informing people when there are restructurings or layoffs imminent. More than once, I told a boss that my staff knew we were moving to another department or about pending layoffs, and got grilled about the info with no acknowledgment of veracity. Yes, management cannot always say everything. But, share whatever information you can so people can gauge which rumors may be true and that you can be trusted.
  • Get to know your staff as people. A good boss truly cares about their employees, and strives to support them. Use your listening and observation skills to get to know each team member’s strengths and interests, what motivates them, and anything going on in their lives that may be affecting them. They are people who have lives and stressors outside the office. One recent boss did not show any concern or follow up when took time off for several appointments with specialists for my daughter. Even worse, when my father died, he never asked about funeral plans or how I was doing when I returned. Employees do not have to discuss their personal life with a boss, but it would have been nice if he cared enough to ask how my daughter was in the first instance or I was in the second.
  • Talk with your staff throughout the year, not just at review times. There should be nothing surprising in a performance review. I typically ask staff to tell me what they think I wrote before I show it to them. In nearly all cases, they paraphrase my assessment. So, it is clear they knew the positives and negatives long before year-end reviews came around. However, I have had bosses who didn’t schedule 1-on-1 meetings with me for months on end. One bad boss actually left my review on my desk for me to read rather than take time to talk with me (and that was in Human Resources!).
  • Bad bosses on television and in film add comic elements or plot tension. Their micro-managing, ranting and stratagems make the plot more interesting as they manipulate others rather than treating them nicely. In real life, no one needs that drama. A good way to grow as a manager is letting bosses – good and bad – in real life and on screen teach one how to be supportive and get things done through people while treating them as people.

By Dyanne Weiss

Wall Street Journal
Macfarlan Lane