In nearly all of my leadership development workshops, after explaining the importance of the manager-employee relationship in improving employee engagement, I challenge the participants to become someone’s “best boss.” We then explore the qualities of a good manager and best boss.
However, it is just as valuable to consider the opposite. What attributes do horrible bosses or bad managers most often exhibit? The list below will not only help you realize if you are working for a toxic boss, but also allow you to reflect on whether you possess any of these traits yourself.
Narcissist. Me. Me. Me. Terrible bosses are endlessly self-centered. Everything is about them and not the people they manage or what is going on in their employees’ personal lives. It is never about the team, but rather all about how good they look. Conversely, great bosses lead with integrity, honesty, care, and authenticity.
Screamer. One of my last bosses believed there was a direct correlation between how loud he yelled and revenue growth. I can laugh about this now that I no longer report to him. Sadly, this trait pervades the workplace. Earlier this year, I saw a LinkedIn post asking whether it is acceptable to yell at work. Shockingly, more than 40 percent of the approximately 10,000 comments defended screaming as an acceptable management behavior.
Bully. Bullies manage through fear mongering and intimidation. Often a “screamer” as well, these people do not give guidance; they bully. They also create a culture of distrust, nervousness, and fear. Under their thumb, employees are worried about losing their jobs. Office politics begin to dominate employee performance. This bullying often includes lying about people behind their backs and leading active campaigns to turn friends into workplace enemies.
Unapologetic. Great managers are quick to realize their missteps or mistakes and offer an apology. Bad bosses never realize their egregious behavior and certainly never atone or apologize for it.
Suck Up. How many times have you heard the term kiss ass in your workplace? Bad bosses are notorious for spending little time with the people they manage. Instead, they spend their time sucking up to their boss and only trying to look good in their boss’s eyes.
Poor Communicator. Not giving clear instructions is a prominent trait among bad bosses. They frequently guard information and treat it as power. In addition, they often contradict themselves or give conflicting instructions. Their direct reports spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decode or interpret what limited communication is offered.
Terrible Listener. Bad bosses don’t listen, which goes hand in hand with being bad communicators. Worse, they do not even care to listen. Whatever you say, bad bosses hear what they want to hear. In addition, they interrupt constantly, and they are never fully present during interactions with employees.
Always Right. These bosses have a compulsive need to be right and consistently point out how others are wrong. They can never admit a mistake and say, “I am sorry.”
Unavailable. Bad managers are rarely available. They are MIA when needed most, especially in times of crisis, when critical decisions need to be made, or in employee situations that require sensitivity.
Never Praise or Encourage. Quick to criticize and slow to praise: Too many employees of bad bosses report that their managers have not thanked them in years. Given that recognition is the most effective driver of engagement, this is one of the most egregious traits of a bad boss.
Blamer. Lacking any personal accountability, these bosses blame everyone else when something goes wrong. They often break the rules or office policies to shift blame onto others. This type of boss leaves direct reports high and dry when it matters most.
Unrealistic and Demanding. Bad bosses set goals that are both unrealistic and unattainable, often doing so because of trait 5 (suck up). When these goals are not met, they blame their employees for not achieving them, labeling the employees weak, lazy, or poor performers.
Indecisive. Bad bosses live in fear of themselves, which often leads to decision paralysis. This indecision stems from a boss’s fear of making a mistake or simply not having enough basic business intelligence to make the decision.
Micromanager. Whatever work you are performing, the micromanager is always looking over your shoulder and second guessing every decision you make. This can be especially frustrating when combined with trait 13 (unable to make a decision). Highly controlling, micromanagers demand every last bit of information and squelch any opportunity for innovation or creativity. You are to execute orders and report back. Command and control.
Tolerant of Mediocrity and Relishes the Suck Ups. These bosses care more about whether employees kiss ass than how they perform. They are tolerant of employees who do average or subpar work as long as they suck up and try to make the bad boss look good. Even if it is glaringly apparent that a poor performer must go, that person can remain in the position because of the ability to suck up.
Manipulative. Bad bosses are notorious for scheming and manipulating others, either for their own agenda or just for fun. It’s almost like a game to them, and they toy with people as though they are puppets. Sadly, this manipulation results in hurt feelings and an untold amount of wasted energy.
Vindictive. Heaven forbid you should ever cross, disagree with, or publicly debate an issue with the bad boss. Questioning this type of boss makes her feel threatened, and likely to go after you to make you feel the same way. Even if your motive for questioning your boss was well intentioned, when you’re dealing with a vindictive leader, it is sometimes best (or at least easier) to bite your tongue to protect yourself and your job.
Inconsiderate and Shaming. Bad bosses are frequently rude and inconsiderate, fond of shaming their employees. They use staff meetings as a forum to belittle or publicly humiliate them. Some of these behaviors are spawned by their own insecurities and fears; many bosses feel better about themselves when ridiculing others.
Take Credit for Other People’s Hard Work. Ever work really hard on something, spending endless hours trying to deliver great results to your organization, only to discover that your boss has stolen the credit for your hard work? If so, you have a bad boss. Good leaders take pride in their team’s accomplishments and go out of their way to make sure higher-ups know who to thank for a job well done. Simply put, taking credit for someone else’s work is shameful.
What kind of boss are you? Do any of these behaviors sound familiar, either because you’ve been on the receiving end or because you sometimes exhibit them? If so, you’re not alone. No one is perfect, but simply trying harder to be a good boss goes a long way toward boosting employee engagement. It is essential for bosses to understand the impact of their actions on employee morale and productivity. Demonstrating your humanness, or authenticity and vulnerability, can go a long way in being a better boss and a trusted leader. To delve deeper into how you can help inspire confidence and engage teams, check out why executive presence is dead.
What can you do today in your work environment to be a better boss?
Editor's Note: Adapted from Sheridan, K. 2015. “19 Ways to Be a Bad Boss.” Kevin Sheridan blog, June 22, 2015. http://kevinsheridanllc.com/2015/06/19-ways-to-be-a-bad-boss.
This article has been updated with new information and resources on April 26, 2023.