How to avoid being a ‘bad boss’

When leaders obviously want to be seen as strong, they come across as weak. When they want to seem ‘one of the team’, they come across as an outsider. And when they try to win people’s respect, that’s usually how they lose it, says Matt Casey

Nobody wants to be a bad boss. Even the terrible ones don’t usually know they’re terrible and almost certainly don’t want to be. I’ve never met anyone who does the job who didn’t want to be seen as a good boss, and who didn’t bristle at the suggestion that their staff might not see them that way. And yet bad managers are everywhere. A Gallup study of more than 1 million US workers found that half of all employees have at one stage quit a job to get away from a bad manager, and that there were more managers perceived to be bad at it than great at it.

I have had a lot of bosses. I left school at 14 and went on a decade long tour of bad jobs and even worse managers, so I’ve experienced first-hand all the different ways a manager can make you want to murder them. I have also managed hundreds of different people and trained and worked with countless managers. What this experience has taught me is that there is one trait above all others that is guaranteed to lead to someone being seen as a bad boss. Just one. We can come back from almost all the other bad stuff we do, apart from this one. If you don’t want to be seen as a bad boss, this is one thing you absolutely have to avoid:

You have to not care if people think you’re a good boss.

Picture Michael Scott, or David Brent (depending on your preferred version of The Office ). They wanted people to believe they were good bosses. They wanted to be seen as powerful and impressive leaders. They wanted to be looked up to, admired, and respected. Everything they did was about creating that image of themselves. They had a perception they wanted to create, and they used their staff as tools to achieve it. Their actions were always motivated by the desire to create that perception. They made work about themselves, not about the work. Those characters resonated so powerfully with so many people because that trait is the very same trait that underpins every bad manager every one of us has ever had. When a boss is driven to make themselves seem inspirational, clever, powerful, or fun, it’s not only transparent, but it also usually has the exact opposite effect. Leading is about making the choices that you believe will create the right outcomes. That’s all we should be concerned about, and the moment we expend any energy at all on worrying what people think about us, we lose all credibility. When a manager tries to use their position as a way of validating themselves, they are doomed to be a bad boss, no matter how good they might actually be at the job.

It’s counter-intuitive, but staff actually care far less about your mistakes, or reliability, or even your competence than they do about your motivations. When someone thinks you’re a bad boss, it will almost never be because of the actual decisions you make or the actions you take. It will be because of what they perceive to be your motivation for those decisions and actions. If they believe that you’re doing the things you do out of self-interest or self-promotion, or in order to make yourself feel a certain way, they will lose all respect for you, even if the actual decisions you make turn out to be good ones. But if they can see that you are motivated only by achieving what the team is trying to achieve, and in helping them the best way you know how regardless of how you look or what they think of you, then they will think you’re a good boss, even if you mess up a lot.

There’s a quote from a French poet, Jean de La Fontaine; A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it. Now, in the spirit of not caring about what you think of me, let me be honest and admit that I don’t read a lot of French poetry – I heard this quote from Master Oogway, the tortoise in Kung-Fu Panda – but clever is still clever, no matter where you hear it, so I’m using it. I think this quote applies perfectly to anyone who wants to avoid being a bad manager. Often the things we do to avoid that fate are the exact things we do that make it a reality. When we obviously want to be seen as strong, we come across as weak. When we want to seem fun and ‘one of the team’, we come across as an outsider. And when we try to win people’s respect, that’s usually how we lose it.

The last manager I ever had was also one of the best. I didn’t choose to work for him, he was hired above me, and on paper he seemed like the last person on earth I would have a good relationship with. He was a very reserved, very traditional business guy. He went to Harvard, he wasn’t from a tech background, and he wore suits all the time. I’m an erratic, unconventional high school dropout who doesn’t even own a shirt. I didn’t think I was going to connect with him at all. But I ended up genuinely admiring him, and genuinely wanting his approval. I found myself looking up to him in a way I had very few other bosses. The reason for this was incredibly simple – he didn’t care one bit if I looked up to him or not. He cared if I did a good job, and he cared that we got good results. Every decision he made was so obviously made with that in mind. He would criticise if he felt I warranted criticism. He would praise when it was deserved and only when it was deserved. Everything he did was completely authentic, with no attempt to manage my perception of him. He never put his ego in our workplace, and he never did anything that he didn’t believe would be the best for the company. What’s interesting to me is that I can’t remember a single decision he made or a single thing he did that stands out as being particularly impressive. There were no grand displays of mind-blowing leadership or memorably challenging situations he handled. He was just authentically trying to get the best outcomes and not worrying at all about what I thought of him. And that was enough to place him right at the top of a very high pile of managers.

I’m going to end this with a quote from another Frenchman, and this time I didn’t learn it from an animated turtle:

‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader’

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

Every good leader understands the folly of this. When you lead the way, you have to lead the way. You have to do what you think is right regardless of anything else. That’s what being a leader is, and if you can do that, even if you make mistakes, I promise nobody will ever think you’re a bad boss.

Matt Casey is a management expert, the co-founder of and author of The Management Delusion: What If We’re Doing it All Wrong out now.

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