Living in Malaysia, these past few years, we have been constantly surrounded by bad leadership, highlighted spectacularly by our corrupt previous Prime Minister, Najib Razak. This got me thinking about bad bosses.
What should the public service leaders who had to deal with bad leaders like Razak have done? I started exploring this whole topic of how best to deal with a bad boss and what constitutes a good boss, especially in companies and organisations.
There is a quote that goes something like this:
Good leadership inspires; bad leaders control.
I am not sure if I agree fully with the quote.
Some of my best bosses were inspiring yet controlling. They knew how to seamlessly move from authoritative to inspirational at just the right moment. So, what determines if your boss is good or bad?
Many of us are frequently frustrated with our bosses. But does your unhappiness equate to you having a bad boss?
Some of my ‘worst’ bosses (at least at the time I was working for them) turned out to be my best bosses.
They did four things other bosses never did. And I think these four things are the differentiator between good and bad bosses (see Figure 1):
- They got to know me.
- They made me focus.
- They cared for me.
- They forced pain on me to grow me.
Check out how good bosses engage with their people:
1. Know me
All through my career at General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and even now at Leaderonomics, I have had great bosses and horrible ones. The good ones always got to know me well – my strengths, my personal goals, my pressure points, what excites and motivates me. And they ensured that any role and assignment given to me were based on my strengths (and not weaknesses).
Bill George in Authentic Leadership says:
“The capacity to develop close and enduring relationships is the mark of a leader.”
Bad bosses, on the other hand, only care about furthering themselves and managing their careers. This was clearly evident in the case of the former prime minister of Malaysia, who would seem to care but only cared for his personal wealth and that of his family. Building relationships is low on such leaders priority list. Business is personal – but not to bad leaders.
A classic sign of a bad boss is when he or she takes credit for your work without giving you any recognition. When I was based in Europe, I had a boss who hardly showed up to work but got away with it as her boss was based in the United States.
Without me realising it, every piece of work I had pulled together and sent to her, was quickly resent to her boss in the United States with no recognition. Worst, she started pinning every bad issue on me. I never realised this was happening and continued working diligently daily.
But some of my co-workers found out and ratted her out. During one of her ‘long’ breaks, the ‘big’ boss flew up to Europe and spent some time with me. Within a week, he replaced her and promoted me. So, the good news is, even if you have a bad boss, if you keep chugging along and ship in good work, people will know. And it should all work out – at least it did for me! Even if it doesn’t we should persevere on and not become like those leaders. I realise, many times, people start to role model these bad leaders and soon they become replicas of them. Instead, keep the faith and soldier on.
Are you a boss who loves your people? Do you take time to get to know their strengths and provide them with a role that best fits their strengths? The best bosses do.
2. Focus me
Since bad bosses never really get to know you, they are never able to focus you. All of us need to be focused to succeed and achieve our goals.
Many of us are multi-talented and have multiple interests. My best bosses took time (sometimes even a quick five-minute walking conversation from their office to their next meeting) to keep me focused on essential work.
On the other hand, some of my bosses, who I first thought were liberating, ended up frustrating me in the long run. They allowed us to go about our tasks according to our own set of expectations and standards and we soon found out that these were not acceptable.
Much frustration in the workplace today is due to unclear directions and expectations. I always say that one of the most important aspect of leadership is clarity. Great leaders have the ability to simplify and make things crystal clear for everyone.
Another area where I struggled with some of my bosses was in the area of prioritisation. In my previous organisation, the chief executive officer (CEO) once announced 23 different initiatives that the company had to work on for that specific year.
I got so overwhelmed and confused that I asked my boss where the focus should be. He replied that every initiative was urgent and important.
After that meeting, I felt flabbergasted and disorientated. I needed my boss to help me focus and prioritise key work that needed to be done.
Instead, I ended up not doing much that year – just bits and pieces of everything with no real accomplishment to show.
The best bosses keep things simple and direct (with regard to their communications). It is very hard to be simple. It is much easier to be complicated. Bad bosses usually don’t have the patience to simplify.
Focusing on your employees is not something easy to do. It is much easier to be a bad boss and just let things be.
In fact, some employees prefer to have the autonomy of not having someone focus on them. Which is why they never accomplish much.
Another learning I had when I compared good and bad bosses were their expectations. Bad bosses expect you to do just enough.
The best bosses I have had expect ‘more’ – from themselves and from others. They expect you to do more, save more, learn more, achieve more and be much more than you could have ever dreamed you could be.
And they ‘focus you’ on how to get there. And the journey to ‘more’ is usually an amazing adventure. Focus is so critical because what you as an individual (or team) does has to be aligned with other parts of the organisation.
Only when each of us is focused on our deliverable (which is part of a bigger deliverable), will we see results across the organisation. That is why great managers work hard to focus their employees.
3. Care for me
Many people mistakenly take caring for employees as pampering them. The best bosses that I have had cared by being brutally honest.
A number of years ago, I was struggling in a new role due to various factors. I didn’t realise my boss was aware of my struggles as he lived and worked in a different city from me.
During one of my trips over to the headquarters, he took me aside in the parking lot (prior to us departing for dinner with our colleagues) and he spent three hours lecturing me, and tormenting me with how he was utterly disappointed with my performance.
I didn’t realise the extent of my performance, yet he made it crystal clear how awful I was in his eyes. We had dinner that night and I was bitterly upset that he spoke with such honesty to me.
Yet, the next day, I resolved to do better. By the next quarter, I was his best employee and again he honestly told me that.
Jim Haudan adds:
“Telling the truth conveys that leaders understand the predicament our people are in, in such an empathetic way it creates a connection to go forward.”
Most of my best managers gave frank feedback consistently. In Asia, we have a feedback avoidance culture.
We worry that we would hurt our employees if we are the bearer of bad news. Yet, if we really care, we will provide authentic and honest feedback to our employees.
Another clearly visible characteristic of a bad boss is that they often do not protect their employees when it is needed.
A number of years ago, I had to prepare a presentation which was to be delivered by our CEO to the group CEO, who was a feared man named Jack Welch.
I was preparing the slides for my boss and made a glaring error in one of the slides. During the presentation, Welch immediately picked up the error and demanded an explanation.
My boss calmly explained it was an error, took the hit and never blamed me for it. After the meeting, she pulled me aside privately and gave me a proper rollicking. She had a hard conversation with me about the need to double check (and triple check) any work submitted. Then she moved on.
I will never forget that.
Most bad bosses would never jump up and take a personal hit when bad things happen. They would instead throw their employees “under the bus”.
Great bosses always see the bus coming and pull their people out of the way, and in the process could possibly get hurt themselves. In fact, many times, I never realised my boss had saved me from being run over by ‘the bus’ until much later.
A final part of the caring equation is being human. Terrible bosses are sometimes not human. They follow rules and show no emotion.
Great bosses have lots of emotion. They show their delight when things go to plan yet they also show disappointment and sometimes anger and frustration when things don’t go their way.
And they allow you to likewise showcase your emotion. Bad bosses curtail their emotions and expect you to do the same, sometimes resulting in an explosion of bottled emotion.
4. Grow me
The final differentiator between great bosses and bad bosses is their willingness to grow you.
Bad bosses don’t care so they don’t share. Good bosses care.
The best managers are always willing to share information, knowledge and little tidbits of wisdom from time to time.
I remember my first boss, Mike Petrucelli, who was a tough boss. He expected the world from anyone who worked for him.
And he pushed me very hard. He ‘forced’ me to understand finance, even though I had preferences in other areas.
He knew that a sound knowledge of finance was key to succeeding in the organisation I was in. He yelled at me when I did not speak up in meetings and he once even ‘fired’ me when I made a massive mistake (and later ‘rehired’ me when I learnt my lesson).
Great leaders teach and coach. A bad boss has no time to invest in growing their people. Nor do they want to go through the pain of having to ‘push’ their employee.
Growth is a painful process that requires time, effort and constant pushing. My first boss Petrucelli pushed me even though I didn’t like being pushed.
If he had not forced me out of my comfort zone often, I may not have succeeded in my future roles in that organisation. And only after I moved to a new role did I realise that the best bosses are not the nicest but the ones who push us the hardest.
When I was at school, the best teachers believed in us and saw potential in us. They cared enough to nag at us to keep studying and they pushed us beyond our ability.
The same goes for great managers. They enable their employees to acquire new competencies not just by training but by giving them challenging assignments, complex tasks and even rotating them into new roles.
When you have a boss who pushes you and causes you to go through the pains of learning and growth, rejoice! Your boss cares enough to grow you.
Final thoughts on good and bad bosses
If your boss gets to know you, focuses you, cares for you and also grows you, in my books, he or she is a great boss. Work for such good bosses. They may stretch you and push you, but at the end of the day, you will grow.
Even in times of instability and uncertainty, a good boss always sees it as an opportunity. They tend to roll up their sleeves and change, re-organise and restructure their team to deal with the situation.
Bad bosses instead wait and see what happens. They refuse to take risks or drive change in case it does not pan out as planned.
In the process, they do not learn nor do they grow.
That is why great bosses stand out. They are willing to take an unpopular stand, often disregarding status quo in the process and often being labelled as heretics. Yet, these are the bosses who made a difference in my life. They constantly taught me lessons to believe in a higher purpose and to believe that anything was possible.
Are you a good boss or a bad boss? The good news is that even bad bosses can CHANGE.