Are You a Boss or Are You Bossy?

Tips to change your workplace reputation and avoid being perceived as bossy.

Have you ever been called bossy? Have you ever called a co-worker bossy?

If you have, you are not alone. My colleagues and I at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently conducted a survey on U.S. leaders about their experiences with bossiness in the workplace. We found that 92 percent of people surveyed said they’ve worked with someone they would consider bossy, and 25 percent reported receiving feedback that they are bossy themselves. These numbers suggest bossiness might be a workplace epidemic.

We also found negative consequences for being bossy in the workplace. An analysis of 20 years of 360-degree feedback data suggests that bossiness is a significant factor in career derailment (when high-potential individuals are fired, demoted, or reach a career plateau). Specifically, managers who exhibit bossy qualities (as rated by their bosses and direct reports) are more likely to be rated as unfit for promotion. Our survey supported this finding—people rated bossy co-workers as fairly competent, but unpopular and unlikely to succeed in the long run.

This trend highlights a common challenge for new bosses: Early career advancement depends largely on task competence, but as people reach management roles, advancement becomes increasingly based on interpersonal abilities.

How to Lose Your Bossy Image and Avoid Derailment

The good news is that there are a few tips to change your workplace reputation and avoid being perceived as bossy:

• Understand the label. One of the challenges with the word, “bossy,” is that, like so many buzz words, there is confusion and controversy over what it means. All of this ambiguity makes it practically impossible to know what to do differently. From our survey, we extracted six common indicators of bossiness:

  1. Dictating and controlling others
  2. Ignoring others’ perspectives
  3. Micro-managing
  4. Being rude and/or pushy
  5. Being authority and power hungry
  6. Being aggressive

Chances are, if you have a reputation for being bossy, it’s really about one or more of these underlying issues.

• Ask and share. One of the key problems with bossy leaders is that they do not involve others in their decisions and thought processes. A simple solution to this is to learn to ask. Ask people for buy-in on decisions, if what you just said made sense, for new ideas (also ask for feedback, see the SBI method below). Similarly, share your intentions and the reasons behind your decision-making. For instance, your intention might be to take on extra work to ensure the team’s success, but without proper communication, others might feel shut out, unvalued, or untrusted.

• Be decisive, not dominant. There is a fine line between being decisive and dominant, and bossy people tend to blur this line. Being decisive is a task-oriented attribute and involves being able to make strategic decisions and accurate judgments under pressure. In contrast, being dominant is a person-orientated attribute and involves holding power and control over others, limiting others’ autonomy, and putting one’s own needs over others’. Being able to make decisions without bulldozing others is an important leadership skill.

• Broaden your view of success. Often, people act bossy because they want to be successful—and typically that success is fairly short term and personal (e.g., making a sale, being viewed as competent during a meeting). Bossiness might even have been effective early in their career. But as people reach middle management, it is not enough to look competent—your team has to look competent. Understanding that your career success is dependent on long-term group success can help you reframe your leadership tactics.

The Gender Gap in the Bossy Penalty

The penalty for being bossy is not equal for everyone—female bossy coworkers are rated as less popular and likely to succeed, although just as competent, compared to their male counterparts. Moreover, bossiness more strongly predicts women being seen as unfit for promotion. Women are also twice as likely to receive feedback that they are bossy—even though men and women were equally likely to commit bossy behaviors at work.

This inequality is particularly frustrating for women today who are continually encouraged to step up, lean in, take on leadership roles, and see themselves as equal to men; yet when they do, they find themselves unfairly slapped with the dreaded b-word. Here are some things organizations, leaders, women, and men can do to address these inequities:

• Stop using the word, “bossy.” It sounds simple, but our study shows that both men and women use the word, “bossy,” in the workplace to label women (women actually were more likely to call other women bossy). This perpetuates the stereotypes about women leaders and makes it harder to shed the bossy label.

• Give women developmental feedback. Bossy name-calling suggests a missed opportunity to give productive developmental feedback. Research shows that women are more likely to get vague, personal feedback (e.g., “people find you abrasive,” “act more like a leader,” “stop being bossy”), while men are given more developmental, task-focused feedback (e.g., “speak up more in meetings,” “make more eye contact”).

CCL recommends using the SBI feedback model to both deliver and ask for feedback. This model includes three types of information:

  1. Situation (S)—Describe the specific incident/context of the feedback.
  2. Behavior (B)—Describe the specific behaviors that occurred. Focus on actual, concrete, observable actions, not judgments or interpretations.
  3. Impact (I)—Describe how the behavior’s impact on you.

• Be aware of attribution error. Research shows that we are more likely to attribute men’s questionable actions to circumstance (“he is very stressed,” “that was a rough situation but he did his best”) and attribute women’s actions to internal characteristics (“she can’t make decisions,” “she is a bossy person”). Being aware of this bias can help us reduce it. Consider (or better yet, ask about) women leaders’ intentions and circumstances before jumping to conclusions.

In short: Being the boss means rising above bossy. So if you want to get to be the boss, don’t act bossy and don’t call others bossy either.

Cathleen Clerkin, Ph.D., is a Research faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. She is the lead investigator of The Bossy Project—CCL’s research initiative to understand and improve gender perceptions in the workplace. She is also a co-principal investigator of the CCL Neuroscience & Leadership project and part of CCL’s Innovation Leadership Solutions team. She has published and presented her research around the world and has won numerous accolades for her scientific contributions. Clerkin has a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and earned her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.