The Good News About Bad Bosses

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member and Skeptical Guy, John Hollon. While poor leaders make lots of workers miserable, he wants to go on the record that there is good news about bad bosses.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about bad bosses: they’re a never-ending source of headache, heartache, and angst.

They also drive a lot of research studies, including a global study we did in 2019 that indicated seven out of ten employees believe they could do a better job than their boss.

Plug the term “bad boss” into Google and you’ll get 1.65 million results. Googling “bad manager” results in 347,000 listings.

Bad bosses are on my mind because of a new survey, by the resume advice website ResumeLab, digging into the topic of those terrible people who “keep you up at 2 am and give a whole new meaning to Monday blues, not to mention sapping away your energy from a potentially very fulfilling role.”

ResumeLab surveyed “over 1,000 Americans who had the misfortune of having to work under a terrible manager,” and asked a series of questions including:

  1. How long did you work for a bad boss?
  2. Why did you put up with them for as long as you did?

The answers from the ResumeLab survey are interesting and instructive. Here’s what they found:

How long did you work for a bad boss?

  • 10 percent of respondents said they put up with a bad boss for five or more years;
  • 27 percent said they did it for 3-5 years;
  • 48 percent said 1-2 years; and
  • 15 percent said they put up with a bad boss for a year or less.

Why did you put up with a bad boss for so long? 

  • 75 percent of workers said they stayed with a bad boss because they couldn’t afford to take a pay cut;
  • 73 percent believed that things would get better; and
  • 62 percent stayed because they liked the job and their co-workers.

What makes for a bad boss, you ask? According to ResumeLab, there are four things that employees identify as the absolute worst things they do:

  1. They criticize employees in front of their peers;
  2. They systematically kill ideas and initiatives;
  3. They deny raises or promotions without a valid reason; and
  4. They lie to people — both employees and other managers — on the job.

What does it take to be a great manager?

Here’s my take: I was thinking about this bad manager survey when I came across an old Harvard Business Review (HBR) post titled Why Good Managers Are So Rare.

It started out by citing research on employee engagement — a Gallup study back in 2016 that said only 13 percent of workers were engaged — but it also offered this smart advice on how to improve employee performance:

“The root of performance variability lies within human nature itself. Teams are composed of individuals with diverging needs related to morale, motivation, and clarity — all of which lead to varying degrees of performance. Nothing less than great managers can maximize them. But first, companies have to find those great managers.”

This raises the question: Just what DOES it take to be a great manager? HBR lists these traits, identified by Gallup, as the hallmarks of a great manager:

  • They motivate every single employee to take action and engage them with a compelling mission and vision.
  • They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
  • They create a culture of clear accountability.
  • They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.
  • They make decisions that are based on productivity, not politics.

My experience is that great management takes lots of hard work and frequent communication, but many managers and bosses don’t even want to do that, much less tackle the tough challenges that separate real managers from the wannabes.

There is one upside though: the best thing about working for a bad boss is that you learn all the things YOU shouldn’t do when you start managing people.

Yes, there’s nothing like learning from a bad boss.

One thought on “The Good News About Bad Bosses

  1. John – great article! The candor you provide is both powerful and refreshing, and I plan to use your article at work to create dialogue about leadership and management in the coming days (so thank you!).

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