Horrible Bosses: Hollywood Fact or Fiction?

Key factors that distinguish good managers from bad.

By Halley Bock, CEO, Fierce, Inc.,

Bad bosses have always made great fodder for the workplace and blogosphere. With blockbuster hits such as Horrible Bossesand Office Space,not to mention television ratings darling The Office,they clearly occupy a warm place in the hearts and wallets of Hollywood film and TV producers alike. At Fierce, being a leadership development and training company, we became curious: Is this just hype? Or is there really an epidemic of horrible bosses in corporate America? To find out, we distributed an anonymous online survey to several thousand corporate executives, employees, and educators across diverse market sectors. We asked the respondents to anonymously rate their relationship with their bosses and the impact this has on overall job satisfaction, and to identify the key factors that distinguish good managers from bad. The results we got were overwhelmingly clear.

Of the 1,700 respondents, nearly 100 percent said their relationship with their boss has a direct impact on job satisfaction—no surprise there. What did come as a surprise was that more than 70 percent claimed to have a good working relationship with their boss. Moreover, respondents overwhelmingly identified a few key traits that set good managers apart from bad. Here are the highlights from the survey:

  • A staggering 80 percent of respondents who reported a good employee-supervisor relationship claimed that the most important thing a boss can do to create a positive working relationship is to both solicit and value their input.
  • Conversely, among respondents who claimed to have a poor relationship with their boss, 42 percent stated that one of the top reasons the relationship was strained was due to their boss’ failure to listen or take their input into account.
  • Additionally, nearly 50 percent stated that one of the top reasons the relationship was strained was due to their boss’ failure to keep them in the loop.
  • More than 40 percent of those who felt they had a bad supervisor identified a lack of candor on the part of their boss as critical to the downfall of the relationship.

In addition to asking employees what they thought about their bosses, our survey also asked managers themselves how they viewed their job performance, and asked them to identify the top three areas in which they wanted to improve. While most of their selections correlated with what employees cited as key components of healthy relationships with bosses, there was one obvious area of disconnect. While 80 percent of employees identified “soliciting input” as critical to the supervisor-employee relationship, only 25 percent of supervisors identified this as an area in which they wanted to improve. Disparities such as these are good reminders that no matter how positive the results, there’s always room for exploration and improvement. Let’s take a closer look at the three attributes of a great boss.

  1. Curious and open-minded. When it comes to decision-making, a leader’s value should derive from his or her ability to get the decision right for the organization, rather than being right for the sake of his own ego. The former represents the mindset of a good boss. The latter, a bad one. Because it is impossible for a leader to be at all places at all times, it’s critical that they actively explore other perspectives. Imagine your organization as a giant beach ball where every individual is occupying a unique “stripe” or vantage point within your company. They may be aware of nuances (some big, some small) that are outside of your view and could have a huge impact on whether your decision will translate to success or be doomed for failure. Whenever you are evaluating an opportunity, designing a strategy, or making a key decision, seek out multiple, diverse perspectives while inviting pushback and challenges. In doing so, you will not only make the best decision due to the valuable insight you gained, you will have done so in a way that enriches relationships.
  2. Honest and transparent. Given the recent implosion of several sectors within “big business,” establishing employee trust is essential for every organization regardless of size or industry. When an employee asks for the truth or needs to hear the truth about an issue concerning them—including their performance or the company’s overall well-being—be candid. A great boss views his employees as capable of handling the truth, has the skill to deliver the truth without trashing relationships, and invites them to rise to the occasion by allowing them to fully participate in their destiny. Leaving an individual to merely land somewhere downstream by default puts up incredible barriers to trust, collaboration, and employee engagement. Engineering a fantasy in the name of creating a “positive workplace” is counter-productive to attracting and retaining top talent.
  3. Reliable communicators. All too often, managers reach a decision and in their excitement to execute, run ahead without turning around and communicating back down through all involved channels. This is particularly frustrating for employees who initially may have been consulted on the issue or who will be impacted by the decision. To create alignment, your employees need to know where to position themselves. Moreover, to develop top-notch decision-makers like yourself, they need to have insight into where you landed, why you landed there, and how they affected your decision. When deciding how much to communicate, the old mantra of “too much is better than not enough” applies today more than ever.

Overall, the survey findings are highly encouraging. Despite the Hollywood hype, many bosses out there are getting it right. Bravo to you! Better yet, for bosses seeking avenues in which to continually improve, the areas of focus are resoundingly clear. Finally, the traits employees want to see in a boss are tangible and can be learned. Those who believe great managers and leaders are born, not made, may need to rethink their theory. And that, dear readers, gives me great joy to say.

Halley Bock is the CEO of Seattle-based Fierce, Inc., a leadership and development training company that drives results for businesses by developing conversation as a skill.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.