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.
Chris is a fabricator at a small company that makes custom robots for production companies. By and large, Chris loves his job, his co-workers, and his boss, James. But James has a pattern Chris couldn’t figure out how to break.
Whenever Chris bring issues to James, James immediately starts to argue with Chris about how James was right in the choices he made and how he handled a situation. James gives Chris all the background into his thinking and will argue with Chris even about explicit requests Chris has made regarding his work and his work space.
The most recent example was when James used some of Chris’s tools without his permission. This wouldn’t be so bad except that Chris keeps his tools neatly arranged on a peg board a la Julia Child so as he goes through his design and build process, he can access his tools quickly and easily and be as efficient as possible. Lost minutes can add up and cost their clients more money. The whole company recently went through a Lean process to make sure all of their workstations served them by being laid out in a way that was intuitive and added value to the clients. James often either takes Chris’s tools and doesn’t return them until asked, or returns them to a different arrangement.
For example, Chris’s fabric shears would be in a different part of the shop every morning for four days in a row. All the workers mark their tools either with their names or with a particular color. Chris’s were marked with neon orange paint. He would frequently find neon orange tools all over the shop.
After finding his scale rule in a bathroom, Chris decided to lock up his tools every night so as to avoid having to go to his boss and ask him to stop. Chris thought that even if he tried to ask James to stop, James would explain away why he used Chris’s tools and Chris would get no where.
“When I tried to make a joke of it and comment on his need for a ruler in the bathroom, James just blew it off, saying that a scale rule didn’t count as a tool,” Chris told me.
“Yeah. But it gets better.”
“The day after I locked up the tools, I left the key with my co-worker so she could have access to some tools that I had that she didn’t. She replaced them and then left the key on her workstation to return to me the next day. Well I come in and the box is open with my stuff all over the table. Turns out my boss got the key off of her station, opened the box, and then pulled out what he needed.”
“What the ever-loving fuck?” This is me, yet still incredulous at the things people do.
“Yeah. So I went to him and was all, ‘Dude. Seriously.’ And he proceeded to tell me that because they key was out, he thought they were accessible to everyone. So he took what he needed.”
Ok, so, let’s look past the immense dense-ness of Chris’s boss and instead jump right to the heart of the matter.
√ Chris works in a shop with a direct supervisor
√ This supervisor consistently uses Chris’s tools without his permission and doesn’t return them
√ Whenever Chris tries to ask his boss not to use his tools, his boss always gives an explanation or justification for why he needed his tools
√ Chris tried locking his tools up, but the boss saw the key out and used it to open the toolbox and still used his tools
√ Now Chris feels wildly violated and isn’t sure how to proceed
What the boss should have done: If your workers have a problem, listen to them. Seriously listen to them. You don’t have to acknowledge they’re right, or even change anything, but at least listen to them rather than giving them excuses. Second, if your workers have given you a boundary of some sort, be it a lock on a toolbox, or even a request to not call them at home, adhere to it. There is no quicker way to erode at trust than to violate these boundaries. And if you think there is a gray area, talk about it. In this case, the boss, James, could have asked if there were any circumstances under which he could use Chris’s tools.
Regarding circumstances under which James could use Chris’s tools, here’s what Chris had to say: “Absolutely. I only needed him to return them to where he found them after he was done using them. It was the fact that he took my tools and then would just keep them until I had to ask for them back that made me a little crazy.”
James is a nice guy who just thought he was doing the ok thing. I can see him genuinely thinking his actions were ok. Even if you think they’re ok, just ask. Just ask. Always ask. More communication. More of it. Just more.
What the worker should have done: At this point Chris decided to have a super-clear conversation with his boss, James. “I went to him and laid out the non-emotional specifics of what was going on. ‘You took the key, opened my locked toolbox, used a few tools, and left them out.’ Then, I asked him if this was what happened. He started to argue his point and I simply asked, ‘Is all of this factually correct?’ to which he answered, ‘Yes.’ Then I told him how it affects me and him. ‘I felt frustrated that even after our conversations about this, it is still persisting. When you take my tools, even just to borrow, they don’t get returned and I spend time having to find them and rearrange them before I can even get to work. You lose some of my time every time this happens.'”
At this point, his boss started to get defensive because he hasn’t been coached by me to just listen.
“I don’t understand why your tools are so precious to you and why you have to be so finicky about how they’re set up. They’re just tools and I’m only using them a little bit.”
Smartly, Chris did what the boss was supposed to do, “I hear that you think I’m being overly protective of my tools and my standards for my workstation are too high. Is that true?”
Chris: “I have spent years assembling the tools I like to use. They are expensive and help me do my work to the standard you come to expect. I may be too rigid in how I want my workstation, but it is my workstation. I get to decide how it is set up. If you don’t like how I have it set up, we can talk about that. Do you have a problem with how I set it up?”
Boss: “No. I just sometimes need something really quickly and your station is closest to my office.”
Chris “So how would you like to solve this?”
Boss: “I want to be able to use your tools for the quick projects I need them for.”
Chris: “Ok, how about we start to collect spare tools around the shop so you can have your own set?”
Boss: “Do we have enough?”
Chris: “I think so, let’s look at what you tend to take and we’ll see what we can scrounge up.”
It turned out the organization had a tool allowance, so they could buy the boss all the tools he wanted brand-new.
In this case, Chris had the communication skills to walk through this with less emotion and could hear what his boss’s wants and needs were. This is what the boss should be doing, but in this case, Chris is exceptional so he was perfectly skilled to manage this.
So, bosses, if you find yourself defending your actions a lot (or even a little), I bet you’re one of these bosses. Next time a worker brings you a problem and you start to feel the need to defend or justify, just listen, paraphrase back what you hear, and ask for your worker to come up with a solution. Then the whole damn thing is resolved in 5 minutes and you’re all back to work.