The Impact of Bad Bosses on Employees and Organizations
Bad bosses loom everywhere. Routinely, people return home from work with headaches, upset stomachs, frustration, and anxiety resulting from a day being belittled, needlessly stressed, blamed for misunderstandings, given poor directions, threatened, and fearful for their jobs.
All bosses tell people what to do, tell them what they did wrong and how to do better next time. They give people deadlines and instruct them where to be and when. But are all bosses bad?
Great bosses do all of these things, and people thrive under their leadership and management. The saying “mission, men and me,” has military connotations, and other than being sexist, can inform an organization about the strength and effectiveness of a manager. Organizations have a purpose or mission, which is why everyone is gathered, and many leaders will agree that the mission comes first. The “how” in achieving that mission is where the “men,” or people, come in, and in the bad boss territory, it becomes clear that the “me” comes first and outweighs everything else at the expense of the people and the mission.
What Makes a Boss Bad?
There is a long list of actions taken and behavior exhibited by bosses that many people don’t like, but what makes them bad? Ignoring the illegal activities—for example, unpaid overtime—that bad bosses perpetrate on employees, there are a host of bad behaviors that undermine the success of individuals and, ultimately, the organization.
The bad boss architype takes a variety of forms: the bully, the perfectionist, the boss who tells people what to do without context so they can’t make good decisions, the micromanager, the boss who provides no development opportunities and has no interest in the person, to name a few. However, rather than detail the personalities of the bad boss, let’s consider what happens to employees working under a bad boss, and also whether organizations are looking at how employees are affected.
Do other managers or senior staff find the bad boss “difficult?” If bad bosses interact with people at their own, or even more senior, levels, in a manner that is intimidating, unrealistic, or disrespectful, imagine what the people who report to the bad bosses have to tolerate. Take note: Do not let this go unaddressed. You are getting clues, and rather than wait for the entire staff to quit or look for other internal opportunities, address the issue.
Walk the Walk of Your Corporate Culture
Ideally, you have a set of clear expectations for managers. Let bad bosses know what is and isn’t acceptable treatment of colleagues. Get coaching for the person if he or she is identified as a “keeper,” but don’t let your employees see you ignore bad behavior. Regardless of organizational intent, lack of action is interpreted by employees as “this behavior is acceptable, this is our culture, and you really aren’t that important to the company.”
Is there a trusted person or place for employees to find support? When employees look for help (if they have the courage to speak up), they often are told that the bad boss is demanding but she/he is under a lot of stress to <fill in organizational initiative or goal here>. These employees are not talking about a demanding boss. Demanding bosses can be great bosses. They set high expectations, encourage people to be accountable, and provide training so people can succeed. Ask about the behavior, the language, and how they feel after an interaction with the bad boss. Do they feel belittled, humiliated, afraid? Don’t make excuses for bad bosses. Most people have exhibited less than stellar behavior at one time or another, and a good boss will apologize. For the bad boss, this demotivating behavior is the norm.
Employees are looking to other managers or colleagues for training opportunities. Bad bosses see no obligation to develop their people. In reality, they see no obligations to them at all. This one-sided relationship is a clear indicator of a bad boss. The new employment contract is about more than “an honest day’s work in exchange for a paycheck.” In an employer economy, you may be able to retain these people, but as soon as the economy changes, where employees are aggressively sought out, you will lose the people you really need and want to keep.
Take Action Because Actions Speak Louder than Words
The training the boss is providing is how to be a bad employee or bad boss within your own organization. Bad bosses don’t build teams, they build competitiveness and a “cover-your-back” mentality. They teach people to be insecure about their roles within your organization, and when employees don’t believe the organization has their best interests at heart, the sense of loyalty is lost. Bad bosses demonstrate the employee’s time isn’t valuable by creating urgent needs that are a result of bad planning and a lack of inclusivity.
Organizations teach bad bosses that they are OK when they aren’t called out for bad behavior. They aren’t coached to change their ways. This way, bad bosses are taught that the value they bring surpasses the employees they manage and the colleagues they interact with on a daily basis. You know who they are. Do you really need an employee engagement survey to identify them? Develop a plan for dealing with bad bosses. Stick to it. No manager is valuable enough to destroy an organization, and that is exactly what bad bosses do.
Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, has more than 20 years of experience in career consulting and coaching development and has worked with numerous executive management teams to improve organizational effectiveness. She has expertise in successfully resolving complex career management issues, including workforce planning, redeployment, and multisite restructurings. Varelas’ experience spans a broad range of industries and businesses, including Fortune 500 companies, start-up ventures, and not-for-profit organizations. She serves as treasurer of Career Partners International, LLC, a network of independently owned career management firms, which Keystone cofounded in 1987. She is also a certified executive coach by the Center for Executive Coaching and MBTI certified. A graduate of the Management Development Program at Boston University, Varelas holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Vermont and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is an active member of many professional associations, including The Boston Club. Contact her at: