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Are you a good boss? Are you sure about that?

I have been collecting bad boss stories for a while now. Most of these people no doubt think they are good bosses. Are any of these familiar?

“She tries so hard to be a good boss that she is really a bad boss.”

This quote is from a recent college graduate in her first professional job. She was describing her immediate supervisor. The supervisor will say yes to ideas brought to her, even when she knows the company won’t pursue them. She leaves it to her own manager to be the bad guy. This leads to wasted time on poor or unfocused ideas and eventually disappointment. It’s so bad even this relatively new employee sees through it.

This boss does something else too. She speaks to her employees ‘in confidence’ about other employees, but they all have seen through that and compare notes. The boss is working hard to develop relationships with her team, but doing so in a way that does not serve her goals.

“I know our meetings go on for too long, but I want people to like me. I can’t stop someone even when they are giving a bad briefing to us.”

This came from a pretty senior manager who repeatedly takes time in meetings to work with briefers to help them overcome not being prepared. This seems like a good thing, but he will spend 20 - 30 minutes with 35 other people in the meeting just trying to fix a bad briefing. When it was pointed out that he was spending a lot of company time on this, he responded with the quote above. A better way might be to be clear on his expectations and delegate to his direct reports to ensure nothing comes to the senior meeting without some practice. Gently asking a briefer to take a few days to fix things up would be a better use of everyone’s time.

These meetings cost money in these ways -- the actual cost of the meeting through paying the attendees, the opportunity cost for what else could be done with the time, and development cost because people don’t bother to bring their best because they know ‘the boss’ will rework their charts. Finally, I doubt the employees really like the boss more because of this behavior -- they certainly don’t respect him enough to be sure their briefings to him are worthwhile.

“Look, my boss said she liked our reporting in this format. I know we can’t seem to get the software to work right and have to keep reworking it when things disappear, but we have to keep trying because she wants it this way.”

No, the boss does not want to spend time and money on rework and frustration – I’m sure of it. She wants good information provided in a timely manner. But the manager is so eager to please his own boss that he won’t have a difficult conversation with her. Instead, he asks his team to work late hours and deal with irate colleagues who complain about the broken software.

“My boss told me he thinks you are doing a bad job. To inspire you, I am going to read you some selections from my favorite management book. Embrace this and get better.”

OK, this one happened to me and my senior team. The problem was that the manager’s boss had given us different feedback and had warned us about our immediate boss. It would have been great if that senior boss had dealt with his own direct report, but I can tell you that in the moment, the entire team took a morale hit. And I can’t tell you a thing he read us from the book!

This boss was smart and hard-working. He also had decided before he ever joined our office that we were not doing a good job. Rather than being open to learning how things were going and then making up his mind, he had decided we needed fixing. He also did not read email, so that caused a few problems. In hindsight, there is a lot I wish I had done differently myself, but things were bad from the start because of what he 'knew' without evidence.

“I stayed late and worked on this because otherwise I was afraid you would fire me.”

This was said to me far too recently by an employee who reports to me. He was speaking about a poorly written deliverable which had not been helped with a long evening spent on it.

I was shocked -- did he really think I would fire someone over a late deliverable? This employee and I rarely see eye to eye. He seems purpose built to annoy me. I think fast while he thinks slowly, and he will often put off getting things done because he wants to do even more research. Despite this, I thought I had been clear in my direction and also in my desire to help him succeed. And here I thought I was a good boss to everyone!

If you recognize yourself in any of these anecdotes, there is hope for you (us). Remember, the job of a manager is not to be liked, but to help others do their best at work. Bosses need to be especially careful in how they spend time and develop trusted relationships with others. To do that, employees need real clarity about their jobs and how they are evaluated. They need tools and training; maybe more time or top cover as well. They don’t need a manager who is so insecure that she makes decisions hoping others will like her, nor one who thinks that he has clearly communicated but has not checked to be sure.

Think about what you want from your own managers. Do you want them to be likable but ineffective, or do you want to respect them and appreciate that they use your time wisely? And if you found out your boss was lying to you to make you think better of them, how would you feel?

Truth can be hard to deliver, but earning trust back after you have lost it is even harder. Communicate more, communicate better, and focus your efforts on helping others do a better job. While that may not cover all of a manager’s responsibilities, get those things right and you will be well on your way to success. Look at yourself from the perspective of those you manage. Just as you want to work for a good boss, make sure those who work for you get that opportunity too.

What are your bad boss stories? Have you been a bad boss and learned from it?

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