5 Good Lessons From Bad Bosses
Article by Karin Vandraiss
Everyone’s had one. Maybe it was a college kid home for the summer who gave you the worst lifeguard shifts at the pool, or maybe it was a team lead who made you stay late on Christmas Eve and then took the credit for your work. If you’ve had a 9-to-5, chances are you’ve encountered one of the Bill Lumbergs, Miranda Priestlys, or Michael Scotts of the world, those archetypal bad bosses ranging from truly nightmarish to unfortunately incompetent.
There are a lot of them out there. Recent research presented by psychologist and leadership consultant Robert Hogan to the American Psychological Association showed that 75 percent of employees report their immediate boss is the worst part of their job.
Being a 20-something navigating the early stages of my career, I think it’s fairly natural that work is a common topic of conversation for myself and my friends, who are all in a similar postgraduate, pre-white-picket-fence stage of life wherein most of our time and energy is focused on our jobs. By now, most of us have encountered that boss – the bully, the blamer, the manipulator, etc. We share war stories at happy hours, at backyard barbecues, and sometimes via international phone calls if need be.
If you’re one of the blessed few who have only experienced the bosses that encourage long lunches and living your best life, knock on wood and keep on doing whatever it is that’s scored you such excellent karma.
I’m lucky. My anecdotes are well-rehearsed by now, told with a levity that comes only with time enough to take the sting out of the most cringe-worthy memories. They largely revolve around my first job out of college, a “sink or swim” situation where my boss’s management style was poor at best and unprofessional at worst. Even years later, it still stirs the occasional moment of self-doubt.
In an effort to sound gracefully diplomatic during a grad school interview, I found myself referencing that particular experience in terms of “teachable moments,” a buzzy phrase I’d never used before that suddenly made a lot of sense. I embraced the idea of the silver lining, and while I only say so out loud with a healthy dose of irony, it makes me feel a little less like losing it when a situation is less than ideal.
In an equally valiant effort not to be the friend preaching about teachable moments when they’re supposed to be commiserating and asking the bartender for another round, I keep the self-help jargon largely to myself. But even if we don’t always explicitly state it, most of my friends’ and colleagues’ stories end with the same takeaway: I don’t ever want to be that person.
In cases like these, a bad boss can teach us just as much as, if not more than, a great one:
1. Hiding From Responsibility
My boss’s nonexistent interpersonal communication skills and mastery of passive aggression made her ill-suited for a job in, well, communications. She regularly avoided all forms of interaction with her team, holing up in her office without talking to anyone except during meetings. Whenever she did pay attention to anyone, it was usually to criticize and patronize one particular coworker, whom she would blame for her own mistakes.
Teachable moment: Your team will know if you don’t want to be there or you’re not interested in being a strong leader. When it comes to leadership and maximizing the potential of your team, a healthy, collaborative environment is always going to be more effective than isolation or condescension.
2. Playing Favorites
I worked very well with one of my first managers, but I was definitely one of her favorites. We would go to long lunches, she wouldn’t question if I left early, and she would share office gossip that I knew was unprofessional. The obvious favoritism created tension on the team between her “favorites” and those who weren’t treated in the same way.
Teachable moment: I might have preferences within my team, but I’m more discreet. I recognize that there will be individuals I prefer to work and engage with, but I do my best to not let that interfere with judgments, evaluations, or daily activities.
3. Shifting the Blame
I had a manager who would purposefully send altered email summaries of conversations to avoid any blame for issues in the office. My coworkers and I began to document conversations ourselves and eventually had to speak directly with the manager’s supervisor to deal with the situation.
Teachable moment: Thorough documentation can save your job (I keep all correspondence, including texts, in organized folders), and if you feel like circumstances warrant it, consider reaching out to upper management for help.
4. Lacking Leadership
My boss’s lackluster interest in my projects and work made me realize I needed to manage myself. He might have been the boss on paper, but I had to take control of organizing my projects, setting the deadlines, and meeting those deadlines.
Teachable moment: Some supervisors have no interest in managing, which means you’ll have to learn to manage yourself. Occasionally, this involves managing them to some extent.
5. Ignoring Feedback
For the first year, my manager was like a best friend to me. I loved going to work until I was promoted to a management position, which didn’t come naturally to me and I felt unsuccessful for the first time in my life. Our relationship disintegrated the moment I requested formal training. She told me that I didn’t need training and that every manager at the company just learned by “doing.” I felt ignored and devalued, and I never trusted her again.
Teachable moment: That was an acutely lonely moment that I’ve never wanted any of my team members to experience. I work hard to hold myself accountable to my team’s feedback and provide as much enrichment as possible. I believe the greatest feeling of validation comes from truly being heard.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She recently returned to the West Coast after receiving her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism and spends her off-hours exploring local restaurants and bars and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.
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