The Bad Boss

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Are you working for a bad boss? Have you worked for one in the past? How do you know that person is or was a bad boss? Could it have been that you were a bad employee?

This article is about the truly bad bosses, why they exist and what to do about them. First, let's deal with the difference between a boss who is truly bad in almost everyone's opinion and the boss with whom you merely don't agree. You may disagree on philosophy or approach or style or many other things that have poisoned your relationship with your boss. It can be tough to determine if you're being truly objective about the boss in these cases.

There is a way to determine if the boss we're talking about is good or bad or somewhere in between. Back in 1970, Robert Townsend wrote a book called Up The Organization. It's still a good book to read if you want to be a manager who's also a leader. In the book, he concludes with a test to see if your boss is a leader. He asks you to rate your boss on the 10 questions shown in the box (shown below) and give them a score between 1 and 10 for each characteristic. If your boss scores below a 50, Townsend suggested that you look for another job. I've paraphrased the questions to update and shorten them a little but you can find the original test in his book, if you can find the book. I've rated all the bosses I've ever worked for and found that those who got less than a 50 got less out of me and I didn't work for them for very long.

  1. The boss is available to help me if I have a problem I can't solve but also makes me bring solutions not problems.
  2. The boss feeds me information that might be useful to me or of long-term professional interest.
  3. The boss has a sense of humor and laughs even harder if the joke is on him or her.
  4. The boss is fair and gives credit where it is due.
  5. The boss is decisive and breaks through the little decisions that can hold up an organization for days or weeks.
  6. The boss is humble, admits mistakes and expects others to do the same.
  7. The boss is objective and knows the truly important from the superficial window dressing.
  8. The boss is tough and won't let people waste the team's time.
  9. The boss is effective and teaches me to show what I've learned from my mistakes and not to interrupt with possible good news for which no action is required.
  10. The boss is patient and knows when to bite the bullet until I solve my own problem.

So Townsend's test can help us figure out if we're truly talking about a bad boss by judging them by the criteria for a good boss.

Some bosses are easier to identify as bad bosses. They are the ones who don't care about people and only care about their own personal success. Townsend and others identified the characteristics of a good boss more than 35 years ago. Since the median age in this country is about 35, that means that half the population was born after the age of managerial enlightenment began in earnest. So why do we have so many bosses around who treat people like dirt, destroy morale and make things worse instead of better?

The answer is that they aren't trying to be good managers. They have different goals and a different skill set. What that skill set is occurred to me when I was discussing a bad boss with someone I know. He was describing his boss's bad boss and I asked how he could keep his job because he seemed pretty disruptive and not much else. What this person said was that this guy was a great salesman. He could talk people into things even though most people distrusted him the minute they met him. That's the key skill of the bad boss—the ability to sell themselves to their bosses in spite of their managerial and leadership shortcomings. That's why they still exist in significant numbers. Abraham Lincoln said you can fool some of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. The bad boss knows this and takes advantage of it.

I once was helping an elected body select a new executive director. They had narrowed the field to two finalists. One of those finalists wasn't in my top 10 of the five candidates we were looking at. He was a jerk with all the staff people he met during the interviews but he was a pro at sucking up to elected officials. Only one of them saw something about him that didn't feel right to her. I helped her put her feelings into words and we didn't hire the jerk. How often are elected officials left to their own devices during the hiring process and wind up selecting a bad boss to lead their organization?

On the other hand, the elected body may very well want someone to shake up the organization and they're actually looking for someone that we all would identify as a bad boss. In that case, as wrong as they are, you'll have to lay low until self-destruction occurs as it always does. If you think you can weather the storm, be sure to look at the new boss's job history to see how long you have to hang on. The next boss will probably be someone who has a reputation for calming the waters because that's what will be perceived as needed after the hallways have been clogged up with rolling heads.

The other reason there are still a lot of bad bosses out there is that they also tend to be control freaks who will make you pay for speaking out of turn. Therefore, employees don't come forward and complain. I know of one instance where the boss was a micromanager who should have been in some other line of work. Her employees didn't complain to senior management about her because she had been around for a long time so their logical assumption was that if they complained nothing would happen. Nothing, that is, except that she would find out they complained and retaliate. So they didn't complain. They just looked for other opportunities and left as soon as they could. Agencies with high turnover rates could have other problems causing this to happen but they might want to look at which divisions experience the highest turnover to see if patterns develop around particular supervisors.

But that's not the whole story. There are also good bosses who tolerate bad bosses who work for them. I know this is true because I've done this. We don't think we're tolerating them; we think we're working with them to change their behavior. We also think that we're the safety valve because if things get too bad the unhappy employees can always come to us to complain. Our door is always open so this should work. However, we already discussed why those unhappy employees wouldn't show up. But it gets worse. The employees who do show up are the outspoken ones who have problems of their own and they could easily put you in the position of supporting the boss they complained about. On top of that they might react negatively to your lack of support for them and become a problem requiring discipline, which will be interpreted as retaliation, which will end badly for all concerned. If you have a file of things to never do, make a copy of this paragraph and put it in that file and look at it periodically.

As much fun as it's been to regale you with stories about the problem, I feel I have to offer a solution. I don't think there is a real solution because this is more of a problem with human nature and how organizations work in general. But there are some partial solutions. If you're working for a jerk and you know it without taking some test from 1970, leave. People always say life is too short because life really is too short. We never have enough time to do everything we want to do and we don't have time to waste absorbing negative energy. I have a friend who is convinced that his stress-related disease is due to working for a bad boss. He'll be the first to tell you not to work for jerks. You should take advantage of his experience and not have to go through your own torment.

Another thing you can do is to examine your own conscience. Are you a bad boss? Can you take the test from the perspective of your employees and score more than 50? You're probably okay because the real jerks aren't likely to have read this far in the article. But take it anyway just to see where your strengths and weaknesses are.

The next thing you can do is to ask yourself if you're an enabler. Are you tolerating a bad boss who works for you? Do you see qualities in this person that others don't see or are you just wishing and thinking at the same time? Ask the 10 questions about this person and see how they score. If they get much below a 50 you might be deluding yourself about your ability to overcome their weaknesses. This is a judgment call and you have to live with the results. I said earlier that I tolerated some bad bosses working for me. I'm not willing to say who they were or when they worked for me. I'm not even willing to say they were plural. There might have been only one and it might have been a long time ago and they might be dead by now. I have had reasonable success so I'm willing to guess that I made the right calls on whether to keep some people along the way. But I can't be sure.

You may have noticed by now that I didn't recommend some form of whistle blowing. I've never seen this turn out especially well for the whistle blower. Even the bad bosses have allies in the organization and they might find a way to retaliate. Everyone else in the organization might know that you're right but they'll be unsure of your motives in the future unless you are above reproach in the first place. I've seen this work out only once and I had a hand in protecting the whistle blower in that case so I can't guarantee similar success.

Finally, if you're ever in a position to help elected officials when they're hiring someone, don't assume that they're just as good a judge of managerial and leadership talent as you are. They weren't elected because they're great managers. They may not even be familiar with hiring processes. They might even be an easy target for someone with a smooth-talking sales pitch. If you spot a phony in the candidate pool, let them know. You might be doing more to help their organization than you know.

John Ostrowski can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or