What About That Bad Boss?
No one, not even an apple, likes to gain the label “bad,” and most of us would rather not have to use it to describe anyone either. At my house, our five-year-old cat, Dave, is referred to as a good cat who does naughty things (this explanation for our three-year-old granddaughter). Most of the time Dave is a loving, curious, and amusingly agile cat whom we love to have around, but he has a propensity to eat certain things (ribbon, yarn, plastic, grocery bag handles), which have given him some varying degrees of gastrointestinal problems and have given us some rather hefty vet bills. We sigh and say that Dave is a good cat who does naughty things.
Do You Have a Bad Boss?
That is often how we can describe people, too—especially some managers who happen to be our bosses. They may be well-intentioned, often are super smart, experienced, and competent to accomplish the work assigned to them. But they also do naughty things: they berate their employees or more subtly try to make them feel guilty. They forget to add a dash of praise or to “encourage the heart” of those who report to them. They set an example of constant complaint and pessimism as a general rule instead of leading with vision, strength, and optimism. They gossip and talk endlessly about problems instead of solutions. They wear a woe-is-me badge and expect to be taken care of by their employees—and do not seem to be concerned about the personal and professional challenges of those same employees. Does this fit any boss you know? Perhaps you have labeled this person a “bad boss.”
Lack of Self-Awareness is the Major Cause
Dave the cat is more easily forgiven for his naughty activities, of course. Unlike his human counterpart, the bad boss, he has little or no understanding of the dangers and consequences of his bad behavior (he once ate some floral ribbon that had a strand of wire in it—and had to be operated on to the tune of several thousand dollars). Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness, which we expect in a cat, is also at the root of the bad boss problem. Quite simply, self-awareness, a foundational aspect of emotional intelligence, is often what that bad boss lacks.
The lack of self-awareness shows up in a variety of ways. If you have to work for such a boss—or if you suspect that you may be such a boss—it may be helpful to look at the behaviors that expose the gap. You can recognize those who have a deficit in self-awareness in at least four behaviors and the effects those behaviors have on employees:
- They are unable to reliably identify their own feelings in a given situation. This inability means that employees will have a difficult time knowing how the boss is going to react to anything. One day the boss may explode in anger, but on another day he or she may dismiss the same issue with a wave of he hand. This inconsistency creates and sustains tension that can devastate morale and personally affect the well-being of employees.
- They have little understanding of how others perceive them. Somehow, these people seem stuck in early childhood patterns, a time when they could throw a tantrum but then recover with little or no consequences. They may behave badly but then expect that the employees will completely forget their lack of self-management and/or forgive them for whatever they said or did. They depend on their position of authority and can be frightened if they feel that rug being pulled out from under them in any way.
- They do not see a pattern in their response to various people or situations. Employees—and former employees—would be able to make a good list of the bad boss’s typical responses, but the boss is unable to see the pattern in his or her own behaviors. For example, the bad boss complains about an administrative assistant to other employees (in an attempt to get their support); the admin, who may or may not hear of the criticism, feels it in any case, and may respond by being uncommunicative or perhaps seethes with anger that is expressed in a variety of ways. The employee may even decide to file a suit for a hostile workplace situation. The bad boss cannot see his or her part in this activity even if it has happened more than once.
- They are clueless about their intent or attitude as they communicate with others. Employees find themselves being forced to listen as this bad boss spews out obvious bias or innuendos that are damaging to other employees in the organization. They may also attempt to make themselves appear smarter by criticizing their peers and superiors—often finding themselves isolated even among their colleagues. The bad boss may keep things vague so that an employee has little clear direction about how to handle a given situation, which is an attempt by the boss to control the employee and possibly make him or her look bad in the eyes of others. It may be hard to believe, but the boss is not even aware that he or she is doing this.
What to do About that Bad Boss?
Once a “bad boss” is identified by these behaviors, there are four basic possibilities to deal with this undesirable situation. One, if the situation caused by the bad boss is recognized by the organization (perhaps through a 360-degree feedback process, for example), the boss can be fired or asked to resign. Second, the unhappy employee(s) may resign (or even bring suit as mentioned above). Third, the bad boss, if he or she is valuable enough to the organization, may be offered the services of a coach, who can work with him or her on self-awareness as well as other emotional intelligence traits. And finally, the employee can choose to make changes in his or her own attitude so that the effects of the bad boss’s behaviors are at least dampened.
This last option—the employee’s change in attitude–is not an ideal solution, but it may serve until the bad boss can either be removed or remediated. In the case of Dave the cat, we learned which unhealthy but attractive materials had to be kept out of Dave’s reach (though he surprisingly ate a large piece of netting from a doll’s cape because we had no idea of its attraction for him) because we understood what triggers his naughty behavior. We can be compassionate to Dave because we know he is incapable of monitoring his own health or our pocketbook. We are not angry, but we do what we can to keep him safe and ourselves solvent.
Similarly, in a bad boss situation, an employee does not have to feel ambushed every time the boss launches into a bad behavior, but the employee can take steps toward creating a healthier environment:
- Observe the boss to understand his or her needs. When we deal with cats or three-year-old children, we have a pretty good idea of their needs. Understanding the behavior of an adult, especially one with authority and power, seems more complicated. However, all of these creatures (cats, kids, and bosses) have some basic needs that cannot be ignored. Each needs care and attention, and each needs to feel safe rather than fearful. Observe the boss’s behavior to understand what he or she needs—not to become manipulative, but to gain compassion for the boss as another human being with strengths and weaknesses like all of us.
- Build your own self-awareness. View the bad boss situation as an opportunity to build the self-observer within you. Become a keen observer of the effect that your own words and actions have on those with whom you interact. Experiment with changing one small behavior—perhaps how you respond when the boss is complaining, for example—and see whether that has any positive effect. If you’ve been trying to supply answers to resolve the boss’s complaints, you might try simply listening and reflecting back what he or she has said. Then observe what effect that has on the boss.
- Take care of yourself. Yes, you are probably feeling the need to walk on tiptoes around a boss who has the power to get you fired. But that doesn’t mean that you must turn into a frozen statue, afraid to do or say anything to improve your own situation. You can find ways to take care of yourself including sharing your worries with a trusted colleague or friend, taking a break when you feel the tension rising (lunch away from the office or even a “mental health” day), making sure you get time with family and friends who love and care about you, planning activities (exercising, listening to music, spending time outdoors) that bring you joy, and journaling to better understand your own reactions to the situation.
- Look back on a problem solved. Okay, this one takes a bit of imagination, but it is a way of gaining perspective and therefore calm for yourself. Choose a future date—say a year from now. Imagine that, one way or another, this issue has been resolved. What is the worst outcome? (You’ve been fired? Your colleagues have resigned and brought law suits against the boss?) What is the best outcome you can imagine? (Your boss has resigned? Has been provided a coach who actually has made progress with him or her?) We exist in an environment of constant change, and acting as if you will always be as miserable as you are right now is unrealistic. In a year, you more than likely will have various issues and challenges, but it probably will not be this one!
The lack of self-awareness in kids and cats is easily understandable. We actually enjoy watching small children in imaginative play—talking and singing aloud, oblivious to whomever is listening. And as YouTube statistics indicate, many of us find delight in watching cats and kittens go about their I-don’t-care-what-you-think antics. Such lack of self-awareness is actually somewhat refreshing and often fun. Unfortunately, that is not the case when we are dealing with adults—especially adults who happen to be our supervisors and bosses. We have a right to expect that managers will have achieved enough self-awareness to be able to lead—to encourage and inspire us to be our best selves. On the optimistic side, you can hope for the boss to resign or gain some healthy self-awareness with a good coach. Meanwhile, take care of yourself by recognizing and observing the bad boss’s patterns and taking steps to build your own self-awareness.