Ten Signs of a Bad Boss

'Bad boss' stories are common. Enduring a bad boss is often an insidious experience. In the movies and on television, bad management is often portrayed overtly. Bad managers, in fiction, engage in behavior that any outside observers could gauge as unacceptable. Unfortunately, in reality, many of the worst managers erode morale slowly and subtly enough to avoid unwanted attention.

I've covered this topic before in detail. However, my previous rant about bad management referred to someone I know. I'd like to share my personal story. Let me start by saying, I hate autocrats.


1. A ruler who has absolute power.
2. Someone who insists on complete obedience from others; an imperious or domineering person. 

Some admire autocrats because of the perception - sometimes justified - that they wield power more effectively and streamline the decision making process. I say to that: if you're an autocrat and a moron, you don't stand a chance of doing either, and you will likely make every decision making process awkward and unnecessarily complicated.

I've worked close to fifteen jobs in my life, which doesn't sound like much (at all), in this economy. However, considering one of those jobs has taken ten years of my life, it seems about right.

It's fair to say that I had good bosses. I've had forgettable bosses. Mediocre bosses. Middle of the road bosses. And then, some terrible, terrible bosses.

As for my current job: over the years, I often spoken fondly of it, referring specifically to the fact that I felt like my own boss. I wasn't micromanaged. I was trusted with management level decisions.

I shouldn't have pressed my luck.

For years, I managed my own department, established protocols, rules, methodologies, relationships and training materials. They had to practically beg me to come back after a two year absence.

Unfortunately, a year and a half ago, our company, for complex reasons stemming from a merit-less but drawn-out employment discrimination lawsuit from a former agent, hired a nincompoop. He's the worst boss I've ever had, probably the worst boss in the world. He's an incompetent bureaucratic political symbol. Were that his only problem, I would merely feel bad for him. As it stands, I abhor him and I especially abhor how he treats the people under him, particularly women.

Generally speaking, an autocrat does not balance power well in the workplace. The autocrat is often a pool of quicksand into which all power and responsibility pours. Unfortunately, due to crippling insecurity and a need for control, the worst autocrats cleverly siphon all of their shortcomings onto the people beneath them, thus maintaining the illusion that they, the autocrat, are the most intelligent, capable person in the workplace. This has the effect of summoning discord, unhappiness, and paranoia in the workplace.

Installing a bad boss is like performing poorly implemented feng shui on the hierarchical order. Everything is out of balance. Nothing flows. Transactions are stilted and fused with tension, subterfuge, resentment, and awkwardness.

Almost every conflict our bad boss has, relates to his desperate need to be seen as the one in charge. He must perceive constant threats to this perception, as it doesn't take much for him to get angry when a single thought, element, decision, email, file, or occurrence takes place under his radar. He takes it personally and gets angry, but more often than not, the anger seems angled from a deep sense of entitlement and patriarchy.

I can discuss the particulars:

1. On his inaccurate and time-wasting criticism of others.

Competent people feel incompetent and paranoid when he's in the room. Think you do your job well, crossing every 'T' and dotting every 'I?' Guess again. He stands over your shoulder and stares until he finds something to criticize. He finds and focuses on the smallest minutiae, often something insignificant and out of context, and hammers you over it. Often these 'errors' are actually matters of his personal preference, and often, they are not your errors, but his. Often they are not error at all, and in the time it takes to explain that to him, you've wasted ten minutes and come out feeling more frustrated and stymied.

2. Unsubstantiated attacks.

He once sat me down to accuse me of a number of 'problems' he had uncovered about my work habits and attitude. Never in my years of service had I been suspected or accused of shoddy performance or attitude, not once. His 'evidence' against me was flimsy, but his demeanor was forceful enough to intimidate. I asked him to give me specifics. He then accused me of making too much noise about attending a close friend's funeral (she had died a week prior). In reality, since her death I had not spoken in public about it at all, had no doubts about attending the funeral, under any circumstances, and definitely not at work. This offended me so deeply I yelled at him. He responded to me by doing what he does whenever anyone - and there have been many - gets upset at him: he puts on a broad smile, and spreads his hands out in a gesture of reconciliation and shushes me.

3. His bad habit of shushing.

He has shushed me a few times, by leaning in, his palms outstretched and pushing down repeatedly, as if he's squashing an invisible lever. I don't like being shushed unless I'm saying something inappropriate or revealing proprietary information that shouldn't be broadcast. When he shushed me, I was answering questions in a diplomatic and generic way. What his behavior tells me is that he thinks I don't know better. He thinks that I don't understand the basic tenet of my job, which is managing public expectations about the Firm. I am, at heart, a Diplomat, and by shushing me he is, in effect, telling me I don't know better. Offensive after ten years.

4. His negative effect on the people around him. 

He made his Assistant cry. Multiple times. Other people have come to me, almost in tears, or on the verge of punching something, after encounters with him. I have become the de facto manager for a few on our team who simply refuse to approach him anymore. This has to be kept a secret from him, which is a shame, but people have to be managed by someone competent, and it might as well be me.

5. The sign incident. 

His first week on the job, he ordered me to fix the Firm sign in the shared space outside the lobby. That isn't my job, but he didn't bother to ask. I went to look at the sign and saw that it was a fraction of a centimeter askew, and needed to be attended to by the building engineers who go around fixing signage. There was a surprising amount of controversy after this happened. A few of the other senior staff exploded at him. Why didn't he fix it himself? Why did he assume it was my job? It was a telling gesture.

6. His Outlook / Spark obsession. 

He scans the global outlook calendar for grammatical and spelling errors, even on entries from the past. If he sees that an out of office notice from two months ago has a misspelling, he'll order me to correct the error. If someone is going to be out on a Friday and Monday, and both days are marked accordingly, he'll order me to add Saturday and Sunday to their days off, even though our company is closed on the weekends. If there is an accidental double entry from a prior week, he takes the time to approach my desk and asks me to delete the duplicate entry.

Additionally, the IT department and I began testing a voluntary messaging program among a few volunteers in the firm. It was intended for quick messages between users, to take data constraint off the email server. Our boss began using this IM program religiously, 'buzzing' us with annoying shaking pop-up windows at every opportunity. He also began using the messaging program as a monitoring program. None of this was sanctioned by the partners, and the program was never officially adopted, but every time I signed out of my computer - and therefore signed out of the program - he would almost immediately call me to ask why I wasn't logged into Spark anymore.

7. A terrible communicator. 

He doesn't communicate orders or expectations very well, and if someone misunderstands him, woe on them. He has this habit of emitting a long, drawn out, sighed syllable ("Aaaaahh....") before every sentence, as if the words won't come. They often never do, or if they do, they're not very articulate or helpful, but he forces them out with the strangled indignation of a man being forced to confront his own inadequacy. Consequently, his stupidity is on display, but his ego is an effective mask against it.

8. Inappropriate political comments. 

The office is no place for politics, but it doesn't stop him. On numerous occasions, he vocally weighs in on his strong feelings on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Now, I've weighed in on this issue myself, and it's an important one, in the right forum. He once jokingly suggested we ignore a foreign associate from the entity he's opposed to. Once, on the way to a Firm lunch, he used a loaded term to describe the side of the conflict he's against. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable at that moment, not because my views are different from his (they're not). That's not the point. The point is, he shouldn't even be bringing it up, especially not in the manner he does. It's inappropriate, but he gets away with it.

9. Vanity. 

His vanity license plate is his first name. It's a small detail, but it's very revealing, don't you think? He took the reins on a project this week, and when he felt his subordinates weren't pulling their weight, he exclaimed to them: "This is MY project. I am in charge. I am the one who controls things." I might add that it's his obsession with appearing to be the one in charge that actually prevents him from taking charge.

10. He's stupid and powerful, a frightful combination.

Frustratingly, he makes bad decisions a lot. When he came on board, he wrested duties and tasks from people, leaving them feeling diminished and humiliated. He made no effort, in the aftermath of his power grab, to maximize their productivity. In fact, he's swallowed up full control over a wealth of company issues -  personnel and file transfers, duty/work allocation, time management, financial, human resources, case management  - and the problem is, he isn't particularly knowledgeable about many of those topics.

Worse, he communicates decisions on these various issues poorly. He's right some of the time, but more often than not, he makes himself right by twisting all the gears of the big machine at awkward angles, rather than traversing the sensible, effective path. His judgement, even when right, is guided by knee-jerk perceptions of others and an ignorance of how things should work. Consequently, people who are doing a good job are often inexplicably blamed, and those who are less visible and doing less for the company skate by unscathed.

His woeful lack of understanding in all areas of effective management - gaining the respect of others, establishing a healthy pecking order, encouraging collaboration, communicating effectively, keeping people motivated and autonomous - is something we all have to live with. You can't really fix stupid, but you can find ways to work around it.

The good news is, he doesn't really 'play favorites.' He can't. No one here likes him or gathers around him. Nobody wants to be near him. He makes them nervous. He eats alone, with a few exceptions. People don't like being around him. But please, don't feel sorry for the man. He sees not what he does. In his mind, he is King, and in some sense, the power of his convictions makes him King.

That he carries all the worst possible traits of a terrible boss is really, then, no surprise. I still hold out my olive branch from time to time, trying to make peace with him, and just when I think I've made headway, he gets locked up by his insecurities and engages in bad behavior again. The other day I ran into him at lunch and sat down with him, trying my damnedest to unlock the ineffective and officious disciplinarian. Managing upward really isn't my job, though.

The most common response to stories like these is, "why don't you complain?" Why don't I say something?

To answer that, we have. We all have. Repeatedly. The partners - the only ones here who have more power than he does - are aware of his deficiencies. Of those three partners, one is leaving, the other refuses to acknowledge there's a problem, and the last partner, the one who has shown the most awareness of the problem, refuses to get tough on him, instead resorting to meek suggestions that he curb his behavior to make this a better environment for everybody. None of it has worked. There's only so much complaining you can do before you realize you're stuck with someone who's never going to change. The only way out is to either find ways to endure it, or find a new job. I'm working on both.


Unknown said…
I just got shushed by my boss and I was talking about the work! He said hush, quiet when I'm trying to tell you something, your not listening to me, your walking away and starting your own conversation. ???? I was telling something about work and that's when he hushed me. I looked at him like are you serious? I could not even retain what he said next because I was so upset! So yeah that is a bad boss!! Hey bosses out there: It's not cool to shush your employees!

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