What Really Makes a Horrible Boss?

Last Updated Jul 7, 2011 10:39 PM EDT

What Really Makes a Horrible BossThe movie Horrible Bosses hits theaters tomorrow and I can't wait to find out what makes a boss so horrible that employees literally fantasize about getting rid of them?

In the past we've covered what it takes to be a good boss, how to deal with a bad boss, and signs that you may not be as talented a manager as you think you are, but the movie did sort of get me thinking about something I'd never considered: What really makes a boss horrible?
I mean, all bosses have good and bad characteristics. Right? And each one has a unique management style that resonates with some employees but drives the others crazy. Sure, there are some black and white aspects to being a good boss, but a lot of it is subjective and circumstantial.

Let's take micromanaging, for example:
In an email, leadership consultant Keith Ayers writes, "Horrible bosses typically don't see themselves as bad bosses." They think that micro-managing, for example, is a way of getting the best results out of their people. "It often surprises me the amount of tolerance that organizations have for these types of managers."
While I agree with Ayers, there are certainly a number of reasons for that tolerance: 1) nobody's perfect, 2) some employees should be micromanaged, and 3) some micromanaging bosses have offsetting positive qualities that their managers or boards of directors are reluctant to part with.
According to management consultant Seth Rabinowitz, "Less cynical and thicker-skinned employees, if they can tolerate abrasiveness, can learn a tremendous amount." He goes on to explain that eccentric bosses, like founders of a company, for example, may be perceived as poor managers when the problem is actually how they communicate.
He's got a point there. Not only have I had what I would characterize as micromanaging, controlling, dysfunctional, and verbally abusive bosses, I can also say that some employees tolerated them better than others. And those bosses - primarily CEOs - were all effective to some extent, albeit some more than others.

Not to mention that more than a few of my former employees would agree that I had at least my fair share of negative characteristics. I'm relatively sure of that.

Having been on both sides of the issue, here's my take on What Really Makes a Horrible Boss, as opposed to just your average, everyday crappy boss who acts out his childhood issues and insecurities on innocent, unsuspecting employees just trying to do their jobs:
  1. Incompetent or incapable of performing the job. It doesn't matter if he's a CEO, VP, manager, or an individual contributor, if he's incompetent, doesn't have the capability or qualifications to do the job, or simply doesn't do the work, he's horrible, whatever his job title is.
  2. Commits criminal or civil offenses. Assault, battery, accounting fraud, securities fraud, sexual harassment, gender or racial discrimination, I can go on and on. If he breaks the law, he's a horrible boss in my book. It's surprising how many people continue to work for bosses who have no respect for the very foundation of our society. We are, after all, a nation of laws.
  3. Circumstance. If employees feel trapped or helpless, that can be enough to turn a bad boss into a horrible or intolerable one. Perhaps the best method for dealing with a bad boss is to quit and go somewhere else. But in a tough job market with high unemployment, that's pretty much off the table for most of us. It's no coincidence that the movie is coming out now.
  4. Consistently poor decision-making. The most important thing a boss or manager does that has the greatest impact on the company and its business is make decisions. If her decision-making is consistently poor and has a materially negative impact on the company, management should get rid of her. If they don't, I wouldn't stick around.
  5. Generates consistently poor results. At the end of the day, bosses are paid to manage an organization and generate results of some sort. If they consistently fail, regardless of the reason, that makes them horrible bosses. They may be nice people, but what good is that if the company goes under or the group doesn't perform its function as a result of mismanagement?
  6. Consistently lies, misleads, is disingenuous, or fails to meet the company's documented standards of business conduct. It's one thing to BS from time to time or make a mistake or two, but if misconduct is consistent, he should go.
  7. Mentally or medically unfit to manage. It's easy to throw around overused labels like psychopath, sociopath, narcissist, or any number of disorders that none of us are qualified to use. And words like dysfunctional are simply too subjective. Nevertheless, some people are simply mentally unfit to manage. Then of course there's drug and alcohol abuse and a myriad of other conditions that would adversely affect anyone's ability to perform their job.
In case you were wondering, yes, all three of the bosses chronicled in the movie fall into these categories.

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Image: via Flickr

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