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What Did You Learn From Your Worst Boss Ever?

There are definitely “worst boss” behaviors that come up again and again that serve as a reference point for anyone who wants to be the best boss.

My first job out of graduate school was as a first year associate in a Wall Street investment bank whose last of the 10 corporate values printed in their annual report was, “Have fun!” Sadly, I did not.

Decades later, it remains the worst place I ever worked or have seen other people working in in 20 years of leadership development work. I didn’t last long there and a year later was back in my home state of West Virginia leading a small team of researchers in the Governor’s economic development office. One of the great benefits of my job was a wonderful administrative assistant named Freda. She was kind, smart and made sure stuff got done. On my first morning in the new office, she took me aside and asked me, “What’s your leadership style?”

I didn’t have an answer. After sitting there for a few moments I think I said something like, “Whatever they did at the investment bank, I’m going to do the opposite.” So that was my guide. If my terrible bosses in New York managed by fear, intimidation, uncertainty and pitting people against each other, I was going to be friendly and forthcoming, share information and try to build a one for all, all for one kind of team. It wasn’t a perfect approach and didn’t get me nominated for leader of the year, but it was a pretty good start for my first real management job. That was the beginning for me of learning how to lead in a professional environment and I owed it to the worst bosses I ever had.

Since then, I’ve been able to observe a lot of other people’s worst bosses ever. Fortunately, I haven’t had to coach many of the worst bosses (there’s a very low probability of success on those gigs), but, especially through our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program, I’ve coached a lot of leaders who work for them. There are definitely “worst boss” behaviors that come up again and again in conversation that serve as a reference point for anyone who wants to work on being the “best boss” ever. Just do the opposite.

Here are some of the themes I hear again and again:

Micromanager: This is probably the one I hear about the most. Almost everyone hates to be micromanaged because most humans want some freedom and control in how they do their work. The other big complaint about micromanaging bosses is the needless rework that results from the manager asking for rounds of changes on things (like the wording of one bullet point on one slide) that don’t matter.

Unpredictable: There’s so much that goes with this one. Leaders create unsettled working environments when they’re unpredictable. Unpredictability can be driven by not sharing needed information about requirements and deadlines. It can stem from emotional outbursts. It can flow from a lack of consistent communication.

Doesn’t have my back: Once you’ve lost a team on this one, it’s really hard to recover the trust. Managers who don’t stand up for their team’s work, who don’t provide air cover from pointless distractions, who take credit in good times and assign blame in bad times don’t have their team’s back. The common denominator of leaders who don’t have their team’s back is lack of courage.

Freaks out over small things: This one usually occurs when the boss has concluded that they are, in fact, the center of the universe and everything should revolve around them in service of their productivity, time, happiness and self-esteem. When life inevitably intervenes (maybe your staffer forgot the plastic fork for the salad they procured for you), they freak out. Almost everyone freaks out now and then, but a consistent diet of this from a leader leaves their team in a state of non-productive traumatic stress.

Doesn’t care about me: If you think about it, the other worst boss behaviors all sort of roll up to this one. Bad bosses are usually self-centered instead of others-centered. When they are, they act out through micromanaging, unpredictability, throwing people under the bus, freaking out and a bunch of other bad behaviors. We’ve all heard the cliché, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Clichés are clichés because they’re usually true.

I hope you’re not seeing yourself in any of these worst boss behaviors but if you are, why not pick one and be intentional about doing the opposite of that this coming week? You probably won’t reach 100 percent perfection in a week or two, but if you’re sincere in your intent you’ll probably improve in ways your team will notice.

And if none of these apply to you, congratulations! What would you add to the list of worst boss behaviors for leaders who want to make sure they do the opposite?