The reality is that everyone has had, will have, or currently has a Bad Boss. It is one of the easiest topics to find common ground on and can be heard all through the Happy Hour watering hole after a work day is over.
Bad Bosses can show up in many different forms: the one who asks you to work on the weekends (a la Bill Lumbergh from Office Space), the most self-centered person you know who does no work (a la Michael Scott from The Office), or even the weird power-hungry one (like Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada).
I’ve had Bad Bosses I’ve been grateful for because of all the things I learned not to do. I’ve had Bad Bosses that induce a sort of PTSD-like trauma response when I think about them. I’ve also had Spectacularly Bad Bosses who were downright emotionally abusive and required an intervention to convince me to leave my job.
Not all bosses are bad. In fact, many are good, and almost all are good people who just don’t know that they’re bad. Bosses are often subject to all sorts of weird authority and power issues. Even the best boss can fall easily because they commit the One Fatal Error that they didn’t know was the Thing you were waiting for them to do.
Here, I want to examine some of the Bad Bosses I encounter in my work as an Organizational Development Consultant and not only tell you how they could avoid being a bad boss, but how you can deal with your Bad Boss when they are being Bad.
While every Bad Boss needs some correction in their action, no one should be publicly shamed. All my examples of Bad Bosses and their employees are drawn from real life but are composites of several people or instances.
Culprit: The “Withholds Critical Details” Boss
The situation: A group of teachers is 3 years into their 4-year collective bargaining agreement with a small state college. This 3rd year was great for the college. After instituting a new admissions program and re-vamping their marketing strategy, enrollment soared. The college leadership was working very hard to have good communication with their teachers, having a quarterly staff meeting to reveal financial information and to publicly acknowledge those who had done exceptional work.
The teachers were enjoying their work more than ever. In the new environment of higher enrollment, they were stretching their skills to accommodate larger classes and were actively engaging in new ways to plan, execute, and monitor their curriculum. Some were even completely reworking their classes after getting an infusion of energy and a renewed love of their work following individual meetings with the Provost.
The Provost was relatively new to the college and was working to bring the college into the 21st century with technology and cutting-edge teaching pedagogies, meeting with the teachers one-on-one to hear how their classes were progressing.
Student satisfaction scores had never been higher, and the year was coming to a close with banner revenue.
One teacher in particular, my client, Rose, was thoroughly enjoying her time at the college. She had been working at the college for eleven years. She taught Physics for Poets, a multi-semester course that fulfilled the science requirement for humanities, English, and arts majors. It was a great way to introduce difficult but fantastical topics to wildly creative thinkers and she poured her heart and soul into not only getting the concepts across, but into doing it in a way that was approachable and understandable to even the most right-brained thinker among her students.
Her fellow science teachers were similarly thrilled with her approach and loved her brainstorming sessions with them for how they could all boost the science department’s prowess in the school. They didn’t need personal recognition, they just wanted the job to get done in a way that most the most effective and simultaneously excited them and their students.
As this year drew to an end, their Union Business Manager held their quarterly unit meeting. It was at this meeting that they received the bombshell.
“The Provost would like to meet with us to discuss ways to reduce expenses in the next year,” he said.
A shocked silence met him as the science teachers looked around at each other, hoping the reasons for this meeting would materialize.
With the increased enrollment, how could we need to cut expenses? What about all the work we did to raise the satisfaction scores? Does he even see what we’ve been doing?
One unit member spoke up, “Do they want to open our collective bargaining agreement early?”
“I don’t know,” replied their Union Business Manager.
Rose was stunned into immobility. She sat just thinking while the meeting continued around them.
Would they want to reduce our wages? What about our pension? Were we going to be asked to teach more classes on the same salary? What about planning time? Would all those fun brainstorming sessions have to end because they would all be so swamped?
The meeting ended and the teachers went home for the weekend. It was the last day before Spring Break, so the group had all week to ponder not only why they were to have this meeting, but what it was going to be about.
Rose and her husband were going on a tropical vacation. It had been a snowy winter and there were aching for sun-tanned skin and fruity umbrella drinks. But this looming meeting weighed on her. She spent the airplane ride writing down ideas about which of their working conditions could be cut and the appropriate counter-arguments. Over dinner she would lay out all the possibilities that could come up at this meeting. Her husband listened and offered her other perspectives, additional arguments, and would even add a condition or two that could be at risk.
They flew home having only minimally enjoyed their vacation because of the amount of discussion that had happened. Rose’s notebook was full of ideas, counter-proposals, and the history of various working conditions.