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    The bad boss - what is a bad boss and what can you do about it?

    Jimi Wikman

    Employees don’t leave organizations, They leave bad bosses. We have all heard it and we all probably have a bad boss experience or two in our career. But what is a bad boss really? Are they just terrible monsters that tear organizations apart, or are they just people like you and me?

    Just as people are different, so are our perception of what a bad boss is. What I consider to be a bad boss, may not be a bad boss to you. It all depend on who we are as individuals and what we currently need. Regardless of who we are though there are three mental types that everyone dislikes and those are psychopaths, narcissists and machiavellians. This is how Birgit Schyn, Barbara Wisse and Stacey Sanders describe these types in their article Shady Strategic Behavior: Recognizing Strategic Followership of Dark Triad Followers:

    • Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement and a constant need for attention and admiration. They are arrogant and consider themselves to be superior to others.
    • Machiavellians are sly, deceptive, distrusting, and manipulative. They are characterized by cynical and misanthropic beliefs, callousness, a striving for … money, power, and status, and the use of cunning influence tactics. In contrast to narcissists, Machiavellians do not necessarily have to be the center of attention and are satisfied with the role of puppeteer, unobtrusively pulling the strings.

    • Psychopaths “are unlikely to consider the needs and wishes of others and are unafraid of crossing moral boundaries. … By creating chaos in the organization, as well as in coworkers’ personal lives, they can pursue personal agendas without detection. They do not only enjoy hurting people, they strategically use humiliation and bullying to direct other people’s attention away from their hidden selfish activities. … psychopaths are often viewed as the most malevolent ones of the Dark Triad.”

    We call these collectively Dark Triad personalities and when you encounter them there is very little you can do but to leave the organization. These are not bad bosses, they are bad people with mental issues that can hurt you, so stay away from them whenever possible.

    These are not the bad bosses we are looking for however, because there is another group, that is far more difficult to handle than the Dark Triad bosses. I am of course talking about the Sudden Asshole Bosses and the Micro Management Boss. These are people that actually are very good people, but they suffer from insecurities and inexperience as leaders.

    These are usually people that others like because they are caring, well-spoken and often action driven people that listens and take care of problems in a way that make everyone happy. Then when they get appointed to a leadership perspective they change overnight to become a controlling asshole of a boss.

    Why do good people become bad bosses?

    My personal experiences and observations is that this happens to new and inexperienced people due to a shift in the direction of care. By that I mean that as an employee my direction of care is usually towards my co-workers. That would be the other employees. As a person moves up and become a manager you have new responsibilities to people above you in the hierarchy. That means that you naturally shift your direction of care upwards.

    This is nothing bad, but if you add stress and the feeling of not being a hundred percent sure of what you are supposed to do as a manager, then the need for control start to take over. As we know stress does not help with maintaining a kind a generous disposition, so that does not really help the situation either.

    We also tend to adopt behavior from those that we work with. If a new manager are unfortunate to have others around them that belong to the Dark Triad, or that have fallen into the trap of micromanagement, then it becomes natural to be drawn into that. This is not because they want to be bad bosses, but because they need something to cling to as managers very rarely get any leadership training before they are tossed into the new roles as managers.

    People that feel insecure, or that are in a position where they feel they have to live up to certain expectations due to their gender, religion, sexuality or race, they are more prone to this in my experience. Not because they are any worse or better than others, but because they fear failure or letting down others more. Fear is a great motivator, unfortunately it often motivates good people to become bad bosses...

    How do we get bad bosses to become good bosses?

    Most Sudden Assholes and Micro Managers tend to get over the initial shock of becoming a manager. With time, they will again shift their direction of care to the people they are in charge of. They will learn how to navigate the minefield of leadership and distance themselves from behavior that is detrimental to the people under their care. They will also realize that micromanagement is not a healthy or sustainable way of working and as they feel more secure in their roles as leaders that need will dissipate.

    As people feel more secure they will also realize that the very reason they were chosen for leadership in the first place was because they are awesome. More often than not it is also because they add something to the company that is missing. For this reason it does not make sense to conform to what already exist. Many leaders blossom greatly when they realize this and a lot of people transcend from bad bosses to amazing bosses.

    For some however the bad boss attitudes get stuck. These are people that need help to break free from the bad boss loop. In my experience there are three things that seem to work well on most people:

    • Time - One of the bane of new managers is stress. Helping your manager to reduce stress is a great way to help them get over the hurdles of transition from bad boss to great boss. Be proactive in providing information and take care of problems and you will quickly see a transition in attitude.
    • Proximity - Being away from the people you are supposed to lead make bad bosses feel more connected to other bad bosses instead of the people you are responsible for. Break this by asking the bad boss to spend more time with the team. Don't let them hide in a closed room, bring them out in the open and in close proximity of the team. The bonds will naturally reforge with the team and the bad influence from other bad bosses will be reduced.
    • Respect - Even if you are getting treated like crap and you are frustrated, show respect to your boss. Remember that they are probably struggling badly with things you have no idea of and with a show of respect you can ease that stress. Also remember that they are human and that the goal is to help them over the speed bumps of being a bad boss so they can become great bosses. Showing respect reduce their insecurities and remind them how awesome you are as well.

    I am not saying this is easy or even feasible in some cases, but just remember that bosses are people just like you and me and they have things going on in their lives you probably have no idea of.

    I know of one middle manager that was pretty much ambushed by several teams that gave him hell for almost 30 minutes before he broke down crying and told them that he had cancer and did not know how to deal with that.

    A woman I read about a while back was struggling because she was gay and was afraid that people would find out and she would be fired, only to find that everyone already suspected it and loved her regardless.

    Some are struggling with addiction, others with family issues such as divorces or deaths in the family. Some are struggling with bigotry from higher up in the company, some have asshole bosses of their own to deal with. Others may have illnesses or suffer from anxiety. There are a million reasons why someone may behave poorly in certain times of their lives.

    Just be open to the possibility that bad bosses may just be amazing bosses trapped inside their insecurities, bad company and a stressed out mind.

    You may hold the key they need to break free.

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      About the Author

      Jimi Wikman is an experienced and much appreciated consultant that have worked as team lead, scrum master and project manager for many years. He is also a popular work process designer and educator with a specialty in the Atlassian products. With more than 25 years practical experience as a frontend developer, graphic designer, tester and requirement analyst he knows the pain and pleasures of what the teams face on a daily basis.

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