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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bad bosses...

We've all had them, and maybe some of us are them! (No, not us!) As a sociologist who has spent many years studying workplaces, I am indebted to a number of bad bosses. Although some of them made my life miserable, they inspired me to understand why. So in the spirit of acknowledgment, I must first say thank you to the boss who told me I was destroying my life by leaving the job to pursue another direction. (Destroying whose life?) And thank you, too, to the psychotic boss who knew that I supported a particular political cause, and out of nowhere screamed at me, "Don't ever let me see you on television with a sign in your hands supporting that Communist (crap)." Whoa! It hadn't occurred to me, but now that you mention it...And thank you to the newly appointed manager who, in her first month on the job, falsely accused me of serious financial improprieties. (One month, and many sleepless nights later, I was vindicated.)

Given these experiences, it has been therapeutic to study the American workplace and to dissect some of the problems that contribute to "bad-bossism." Despite having been "stung" by a few bad bosses, I still believe that people - including some bad bosses - are basically good.

So what is it that leads some people in management positions to "behave badly?" Well for a start, the workplace is a microcosm of our larger culture and society. Societal problems that exist outside the office are likely to surface within it as well, playing out via power dynamics between and among employees, based on their occupational status, their gender, and their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Political economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, laid the groundwork for understanding the intrinsic tension between labor and management (or, as he would say, capital), in which a capitalist system favors profit over people. In this system, he argued, management would necessarily exploit workers with long hours and poor working conditions, in order to get more productivity out of workers, which in turn would maximize profit. With the advent of laws that limit working hours in manufacturing settings, and the regulation of working conditions, Marx's critique and analysis continues to provide a useful framework, even though it's probably more relevant to manufacturing work in Third World countries, where many multinational corporations have moved their operations in search of cheaper labor.

In the U.S., our current economy has increasingly shifted to knowledge-based work and services, and the lines that are drawn between workers and managers are often painted as more subtle. Nonetheless, stratification of the labor force ripples through multiple levels of professional and managerial workers. How do these dynamics affect the contemporary workplace?

Studies suggest that a number of factors shaping workplace environments contribute to the "bad boss" phenomenon:

1. Male model of the ideal worker
In this model, the "normal" trajectory of the worker is based on a "male model" of the ideal worker, a person who can work throughout his (her?) career in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, taking no time for non-work (e.g., personal, family) activities. Sociologist Erin Kelly, et al calls it a "masculinist work culture", commenting,

"Working long hours is a sign that employees are readily available and eager to meet others' needs; it further reinforces the ideal worker as someone - most often a man - who does not have, or does not attend to, other pressing commitments outside of work."

With this model, work comes first. When managers perceive that's not the case for one or more employees, it's viewed as an affront to the company, a deviation from employee loyalty. Managers who "buy into" a "masculinist work culture" are likely to be critical of workers who challenge this norm. In a study I conducted on parental leave policy in a large financial services company, the norm was so powerful that men chose not to use the company's generous parental leave policy, and women who used the policy took very short leaves, even though legally, all employees were entitled to longer leaves.

2. Structural issues that create a culture of competition
in our current American workplace, where the bottom line rules, there are economic pressures to produce. In line with the prevailing capitalist ethic, a culture of competition is viewed by many managers as necessary to foster productivity, with long hours as the norm. In order to sustain productivity, managers feel pressure from above to push employees to produce more, even when they realize that it's not humanly possible. In a number of the workplace studies I've conducted, I've learned that being in a middle managerial position is often isolating. This makes these managers depressed and grumpy. Most have little support to figure out a better way, and they realize quickly that too much empathy for their "subordinates" takes too much time. Ergo, they may "act badly."

3. Poor economic times makes managers even more grumpy
In our crisis economy, the financial pressure is even more intense, and some managers may exhibit more controlling behavior towards their employees. Managers are being more closely monitored on financial performance, and they may be even less likely to take the time to attend to employees' feelings or needs under these conditions.

4. "Deal with it; I did!"
Some managers worked hard to get where they are, and along the way, they experienced a lot of pain themselves. When they get to the top (or close to it), some pass on what is familiar. While many of the managers I've interviewed worked very hard to respond to the needs of those under their supervision, some were less than understanding.

5. Lack of management training
Some managers who are good workers are rewarded by being moved up to management positions. While some organizations prepare their workers for this type of promotion, others fail to prepare them for the pressures they encounter once they are in charge. Without adequate management training, some bosses make mistakes, even lots of mistakes. Sometimes they find themselves in positions of power and it feels uncomfortable. They're being asked to do things with and to workers that they wouldn't have liked themselves. They know that. But they don't know how to challenge or work with the system without jeopardizing their reputation or losing their jobs. This can make for frustration and grumpiness.

6. Personality problems
Some managers just shouldn't be managing people. Their "management style" may look good to upper-level managers because it fits in with a culture of competition and drive. But they may be making the people who work for them miserable. Because of an "us" and "them" dichotomy, other managers may even side with them.

Perhaps we all have a story about the crazy or mean or incompetent boss. Are all managers bad bosses? No, of course not. But the problem is clearly pervasive: Google "bad boss" and you'll find over 7 million citations, with countless workers publicly venting about their negative experiences, and experts offering advice on how to deal with that mean and disrespectful supervisor.

What is a good boss? There's plenty written about good bosses as well. Google "good boss" and you'll find over 14 million citations! Hopefully we've also had them (and maybe even are them!).

Here's an excerpt (slightly tweaked) from an 10/10/10 article in the Chicago Tribute by Mary Schmich about what makes a "good boss."

* A good boss understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed, and doesn't take advantage of this moment.
* A good boss realizes that her/his real power comes not from those above him, but from the rank-and-file.
* A good boss listens, and can see a problem before it turns into a crisis. If it does turn into a crisis, the good boss works with an employee to resolve the situation.
* A good boss understands that your time is important too.
* A good boss is a good communicator, responding to your concerns and questions in person and via electronic communications.
* A good boss treats employees with respect. S/he does not treat people differently based on their occupational status, gender, race or sexual orientation.
* A good boss tries to make everyone feel special and included.
* A good boss is self-aware and tries to understand how his/her behavior affects others.
* A good boss has the courage to deal with problem employees, and does it professionally.
* A good boss tells you when you screwed up and forgives you.
* A good boss does not take credit for your ideas, nor does s/he demand credit when s/he gives you an idea.
* A good boss is not afraid of people as smart as s/he is.
* A good boss sees what you do best, matches your job to your talents, and gives you room to bloom.
* A good boss remembers how s/he felt about bosses before s/he was one.
* A good boss reveals just enough about her/his personal life to remind you that bosses are people too.
* A good boss doesn't take bonuses when the workers can't get a raise.

* A good boss knows how to apologize and how to laugh, sometimes at him/herself.
* And a good boss understands how much we all yearn for a good boss.


  1. Great blog! Timely, interesting, well written, and funny too! It got me to thinking of my previous bosses, especially the one who, when asked her management style, told us that she was the hen and we were the little chicks! That explained everything... Thanks, Lor

  2. Thank you, Mindy. Reminds me of why I am glad I am self-employed, though overall, the worst I generally had was ineffectual bosses. One thing that worked for me when I was a boss of others was being willing to get my hands "dirty" in the general work. My staff appreciated that I wasn't above it all.

  3. Great blog! Excellent sociological insight which moves us away from individualistic explanations to ones that look at the "bigger picture". Wonderful!

  4. It’s inevitable that either you or someone you know will work for a bad boss sometime during your professional career. Bad bosses can come in a variety of forms and can cause untold damage to a firm’s productivity (and in some cases, people’s health).

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