Busting the Bad Boss Myth

Last Updated Sep 20, 2011 3:48 PM EDT

Busting the Bad Boss MythEverywhere you look, everyone's talking about bad bosses these days. There are books like Bob Sutton's Good Boss, Bad Boss and Gini Graham Scott's A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses; popular websites like badbossology.com; even Hollywood's in on the fun with Horrible Bosses, the movie.

It's all over the blogosphere, from the WSJ's Five Signs You're a Bad Boss and Business Week's How to Handle a Bad Boss to How to Deal With a Bad Boss: Don't! and 7 Signs You May Be a Bad Manager, by yours truly.

Like I said, the stuff's everywhere. Great. It sure seems like a ginormous problem that's been brewing forever in corporate America is finally coming to light, right? Not exactly.

Are there loads of dysfunctional bosses that behave in all sorts of idiotic and idiosyncratic ways and cause all sorts of workplace and business issues? Yes. Do employees need advice on how to deal with these wonderful people? Sure. Do some bosses have far more room for improvement than others, to put it gently? Absolutely.

But none of that means there's actually a bad boss problem that needs to be or even can be solved, along the lines of workplace discrimination, for example. That's because the entire concept of a horrible plague in the corporate world that needs to be eradicated - bad bosses - is a myth. Here's why:

Bad bosses and whiny employees - two sides of the same coin
It's ironic, but bad bosses and whiny employees who think they're somehow entitled to bosses that behave the way they want them to behave are actually two sides of the same coin. They're yin and yang. Cut from the same cloth. Here's how it works.

When we're children, our parents tell us what to do, how to do it, and hopefully prepare us for the great wide world beyond. Some of us grow up to be relatively normal, functioning adults who are actually comfortable in their own skin and therefore capable of dealing with others in a genuine, open, and respectful way.

Others don't. They don't grow up. As we discussed at length in Are You a Dysfunctional Manager? they get stuck in one stage or another of human development. They grow jealous and angry. They subconsciously vow never to listen to another soul or follow another rule as long as they live. And the worst thing about it? They want everything to be wonderful. Why? Because they think they're special. Entitled.

In short, they look just like ordinary adults, but actually behave a lot more like children. They create all sorts of imaginary scenarios to get attention, act out, throw tantrums, and generally make life miserable for everyone around them.

Want to wager a guess as to what percentage of the adult population is at least partially dysfunctional? It's way bigger than you think.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four adult Americans "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder." While that sounds like a big number, understand that most of them are functional, working people.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Any good shrink will tell you this isn't a black and white thing. Some people are great with relationships, others are completely dysfunctional, and then there's everything in between. It's a bell curve.

Well, guess what? Some of those people, maybe a lot of those people, become bosses. And the rest become whiny employees. And there you have it, endless fodder for the bad boss phenomenon.

Bad bosses are subjective
Ask 10 people to define a bad boss and you'll get 10 different answers. This is pretty amorphous stuff - sort of like shooting darts at Jell-O.

Ask a CEO for his definition of a bad boss and he might say it's a manager who consistently fails to meet his goals and do his job in an effective and satisfactory manner. That makes sense, and good companies have processes for dealing with that sort of thing. After that, it gets really murky.

Ask an employee the same question and she might say her manager is a bad boss because he bullies her, demeans her in front of others, asks the impossible and then wonders why she can't get it done. A fellow manager may think someone's a bad boss because she overhears him disciplining or coming down on employees over the cubicle wall in a manner she wouldn't do.

And yet, one person's bad boss is another person's wonderful boss. Almost every boss has employees who loathe her. Likewise, almost everyone accused of being a bad boss has positive qualities that makes her valuable to the company, like getting things done and generating results.

Some people just don't see eye to eye and will never get along with each other. That's not surprising, given the nature of human relationships and the broad spectrum of human personality and cultural differences.

One of the most common adjectives used to describe bad bosses is they're a**holes. Some casually toss that term around as if it's some kind of absolute. The truth is that we're all a**holes some of the time. Half the time you're the a**hole and the other person is just reacting to it. She may just be an a**hole to you.

You see, what almost never occurs to employees is that it might be them. Nobody wants to believe they're the problem. As we discussed in What Really Makes a Horrible Boss, lots of employees complain their bosses micromanage them, but some employees need to be micromanaged because they're poor performers or aren't cutting it.

You see, it works both ways. There are far more bad employees than there are bad bosses.

Bad bosses are often signs of systemic corporate problems
Most companies have goals and metrics, so when managers consistently underperform, it shows up, hopefully sooner rather than later. There are relatively straightforward processes for dealing with that sort of thing. If those processes consistently fail or don't exist, it's usually the sign of a bigger, more systemic problem at the executive or corporate level.

I don't call that a bad boss problem. I call that a serious management problem because companies that fail to optimize management effectiveness, don't make employee motivation a priority, or don't hold themselves or their managers accountable for results, will ultimately fail.

That's because systemic management issues eventually show up in operating results, i.e. revenue, profits, and long-term shareholder value. To me, that's a far bigger issue than just a random bad boss. There are entire industries built around helping executives and companies build better organizations.

Bad bosses are people too

Here's the truth, like it or not. There's a bell curve for everything involving people, and that goes for any and all aspects and attributes. Pick one, like common sense. Some people have tons, some have none, and there's everything in between. You might just as well have picked any ability, including ability to manage others.

No, I'm not saying it's okay to have or be a horrible boss so just suck it up and have a nice day. What I am saying is there will always be some percentage of bad bosses or whatever you want to call them and you may just happen to work for one or be one.

And, just as in a bad marriage or a bad friendship, you have a choice. You have some measure of control. If you're the boss and negative feedback and results seem to follow you wherever you go, you might want to get some help, coaching, or mentoring.

If you're the employee and it's bad enough, you can quit and go somewhere else. It's a free country. But if you think you're entitled to your particular boss at your particular company behaving the way you want, forget it. That's not the way it works in the real world. You can't control other people. Most of us can barely control ourselves.

Look at this way. What if you made your company all about having the kind of bosses you like? You can fire all the ones you don't like and, guess what? They'll all go to work somewhere else. That happens in marriages and friendships all the time. Your dumped husband or wife becomes the love of someone else's life. In a lot of ways, it's the same with bosses.

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