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Even a Bad Boss Can be Good

I firmly believe that you can learn something from every boss that you have – both good and bad. The good bosses become mentors and lifelong friends. The bad ones teach resilience, perspective and patience.

I’ve had some amazing bosses throughout my career. They have taught me to stretch myself, to take on new challenges, and to believe in my abilities. Yet, with all of the good, helpful, sound advice came a smattering of bad from managers who, shall we say, don’t rank highly on my top ten list. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize these individuals as bad bosses. However, they had some traits that helped me learn more about myself and ultimately, who I wanted to be as a manager.

If you are currently working for a bad boss and you find yourself struggling, take heart. Think about the big picture and consider what you can learn about yourself and about how you will or won't act as a boss in the future. Upon reflection, here are a few things I’ve learned from my bosses during my career.

Value other people’s time

My first boss was a high-flying executive at a Fortune 500 company in the U.S. She was an industry heavyweight who had a serious time management issue. On a typical day, my colleagues would be standing outside of her office at 10:00pm waiting for a 2:00pm meeting to begin. On numerous occasions, I witnessed colleagues cancelling important family functions or personal commitments to accommodate this manager’s constantly shifting schedule.

Lesson: It’s so important to value other people's time. In my view, if you don't value other’s time, it is a sign of disrespect and shows that you don't value them.

Employees can’t be bought

This same manager was prone to unreasonable outbursts and had a short fuse. This created a culture of fear in the team. However, when we hit our targets (which happened several times a year) the office was flooded with high-end champagne, artisanal cupcakes, and chocolate covered strawberries. These small rewards were welcomed, but in retrospect, they were simply short-term band-aids to mask longer-term problems.

Lesson: A mix of long-term and short-term rewards are effective in fostering employee engagement, but they are inadequate if deeply rooted management issues are not addressed.

Manage conflict

During my first role in Asia, I didn't get along well with my teammates – part of it was miscommunication, part of it was expectation management, and part of it was cultural differences. It got to the point where I would dread going to work and my teammates and I were not on speaking terms. Although my boss was a nice guy, he ignored the problem because he didn't know how to deal with it. This led to dysfunction and disengagement and made it very difficult for me to feel comfortable in the workplace.

Lesson: If conflict arises within your team, deal with it directly and immediately. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing your best people.

Don’t make assumptions

After working at an investment bank for about a year, I got a new boss who joined from another prestigious investment bank. She started every sentence with "At my previous company, we did things this way...." Eventually, we all started rolling our eyes and ignoring her. No one cares about the way things were done at your old company! There was no doubt that she was hired for her expertise and experience. But when you join a new firm, you have to be open minded to new approaches and new ways of working.

Lesson: Never make assumptions that your way is the right way or the only way.

Now I don’t mean to imply that I am a perfect boss – far from it. I am too direct, I focus too much on execution and I'm not necessarily a creative thinker.  These are all things that I am aware of and that I try to constantly improve upon. Yet, I also believe that there are certain tenets I have learned over the years that I try to live by, including:

  • Ask questions – I’m amazed at the number of senior individuals who refuse to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s impossible to know everything. Asking questions shows vulnerability and self-awareness. Never forget that you can learn something new from every situation.

  • Admit mistakes – No one is perfect and even senior people make mistakes sometimes. If you admit mistakes or failures easily and without blame (and use them as a teachable moment), you’ll gain the respect of your team.

  • Hire the best people – Managers should hire the absolute best talent they can and then groom them to be their successor. If you interview someone and feel they are smarter, sharper or more innovative than you – don’t be afraid – hire them. They will add value to your team and enhance your reputation as a talent scout.

  • Create opportunities – Even if it made my life more difficult, I would advocate for more opportunities for my team, whether it be a stretch project, an international assignment, or a chance to present to senior management. Your team can’t learn and grow if you keep the plum projects to yourself. Give them a chance to prove themselves.

  • Share the credit – Most projects are a team effort. Give credit when credit is due and try to elevate your team members in the eyes of senior management. It’s not only the right thing to do, but will demonstrate your ability to successfully train up and develop your team.

The best boss I ever had was a former consultant who practiced inclusive leadership and believed in bringing his team into the decision making process. This created ownership of the delivery and the outcomes. His style created understanding and a shared sense of “we are in this together.” He is still a mentor to this day.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned that even a bad boss can be good and can teach you valuable lessons about who you want to be as a manager. I learned to value other's time, that employees can’t be bought, to manage conflict and to never assume that I am always right. If you are currently suffering working for a bad boss, think about what you’ve learned. Then take action to incorporate it into your own management philosophy.

Struggling with poor management in your corporation or not sure how to deal with a bad boss? Give RC HR Consulting a call to see how we can help.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.

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