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There's a lot of bad bosses out there. We try to break down why they're terrible, and what to do about it.
A job goes from thrilling to nightmarish because of one person and their unprocessed trust issues. We carry these battle scars––office horror stories, paranoid email habits, or a firm distrust in authority––because we’ve survived a toxic work environment. Every bad boss is extremely specific and yet, we’ve all been there.
If this sounds distant and fascinating, congrats on your happy work culture and general lack of anxiety. If you had or have a particular person in mind, know that we're with you and that you're not alone. Over 75% of employees report that their boss is the worst part about their job. You’re not crazy for feeling like you're starring in a mix between Big Brother and Survivor. Your boss does suck, and you don’t need another listicle to prove it.
Instead, we're hoping this article helps you piece together the Big Why. We'll dig into your boss's psyche a little, identify their particular brand of suck. Do they lack basic communication skills? Are they a retired schoolyard bully? A manipulative little shit? We'll isolate their key flaw(s) together. Because if you can figure them out, you’ll know what to do about it. You'll Bear Grylls this work environment. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
We've sourced the following reasons from experts and our traumatized friends:
This brand of manager balances high expectations with low explanations. Maybe they communicate via vague Slack messages that come off as an assignment, insult, and question all at once. Or maybe they occupy meetings with their visionary rants that have an impressive buzzword count but little direction. Either way, your boss wants you to do something, something urgent, you’re just not sure what or how.
The best option is to look to your coworkers for clarification. By then, you're playing a game of telephone with higher stakes. Intentions get distorted and everyone’s wondering how “source candidates” turned into “create a fully-fledged social media marketing plan.”
That’s the worst part about bosses with poor communication. The flack typically falls on the employee. Bad bosses blame an employee's poor listening skills, without accounting for the jumbled instructions given to them. When you deal with poor communicators, you deal with frequent frustration and very little reasoning. There’s a constant fear of tackling the wrong task or tackling the right task poorly.
Usually, communication issues have to do with a conflict of communication styles and expectations. Let's say your boss means well, but they’re too optimistic. They don't have to do the groundwork, so they keep setting impossible deadlines for the team. In this case, your manager needs a bit of a reality check. Ask thoughtful questions and present data to get them closer to an achievable goal. If they get overwhelmed by external pressures, try to prioritize tasks together and tackle the most important one first.
We saw a lot of these bad managers come out of the woodwork when the pandemic started. Some turned to employee monitoring software that used webcams like something out of 1984. Others set absurd rules for checking in like a possessive ex-boyfriend. Overwhelmingly, this particular brand of manager claimed remote work would fail because they couldn’t stop employees from playing Tetris. (It didn’t, and we did.)
Beyond the red flags of deliberate monitoring, there’s a subtype of this bad boss that resorts to gossip. These managers have “little birds” like Lord Varys from Game of Thrones. They pick a set of favorite employees that will tattle and report others’ behavior. These rumors may be unfounded, but they sure do earn little birds a gold star and preferential treatment.
Monitoring and micromanagement stem from a fundamental lack of trust. These bad bosses struggle to delegate tasks because they don’t believe their team is capable. They feel solely responsible for the team’s success so they become neurotic about response times or bathroom breaks. The best way to operate in this environment is to over-communicate, commit to quality, and try to empathize with their pressures. If you manage to sit your boss down, express to them how their doubt makes you feel. Hopefully, they're unaware, surprised, and they make an effort to change.
If you’re wondering whether you’re too sensitive or needy when it comes to feedback, chances are your boss falls into this category. This kind of manager loves extra heaps of shit in their shit sandwich. They’re partial to negative feedback––maybe they gave one gold star back in 2014?––and the loudness of this negativity ranges based on their breakfast. You might have the “I'm not mad, just disappointed” talk and have to deal with the awkward silence that follows. Or you might have a retired schoolyard bully, making you grateful for that volume button on your computer. Bottom line: the words "feedback" and "attack" are interchangeable with these types of bad bosses.
That’s the tragic part about this particular manager. We’ve talked about how feedback powers innovation and growth, and these leaders are the biggest obstacles to long-term business success. It’s great that they’re hoping to identify weaknesses, but their execution isolates them. To make matters worse, these managers can’t take what they dish out. They almost always shut down any employee brave enough to offer feedback. Their defensiveness creates one-sided loops that never lead to real progress.
We talked to Robyn Ward, one of LA’s top executive coaches, to understand how to deal with these crucial conversations better. She recommends using a framework when structuring your response:
This framework takes practice. If you have a big conversation with your boss in the books, be sure to pull a coworker aside and role-play. A little bit of practice goes a long way.
You see your manager every day, yet they don’t know anything about you. You’re not sure if they’ve ever asked about your life outside of work, even though you’re clearly working out of a closet and your kids are screaming about Nutella in the kitchen. Your manager hasn’t shared much about themselves, either; for all you know, they sleep, eat, and wake up at their desk. There’s never been a discussion about sports or a “How are you?” You only talk about work. On some days, you don’t talk at all. You could pay a stunt double to sit in your meetings and your boss wouldn’t treat you any different.
Somehow, we often give this behavior the gold medal of “professionalism.” Too many companies have sustained the notion that personal details should stay at the door and that feelings at work create a distraction. Some tech companies have gone so far as to shut down non-work conversations entirely. But newsflash: we’re in a pandemic, and no one is feeling okay. How do you check your life at the door when life keeps knocking, asking if they can have a cookie before dinner?
We’ll be harsh for a second. This kind of manager doesn’t give a f*ck about you right now. We say “right now” because this can be fixed. Some managers are so stressed with maintaining work-as-usual that they need a bit of conversation prompting. Others get uncomfortable, claiming that they’re not the “feelings” type. This “unfeeling” manager might need a bit more reason, you may need to explain to them why your life affects your work and why you may need more support on off days than others. For either, we’ve created a check-in tool to make “how are you”s easy.
You’ve heard great stories about unlimited PTO and work-life balance, maybe those stories even convinced you to take this job in the first place. In practice though, you’re as “balanced” as those teetering college kids on slacklines because they saw someone do flips on TikTok.
Theoretically, you could be “balanced.” That is if you weren’t carrying this team on your shoulders. You’re wearing half a dozen hats (a few that your manager should be wearing, really) and you’re doing tasks that have nothing to do with your job title. You’re told that you need to get the job done, but that job keeps growing. Eventually, there’s this unspoken understanding that you need to complete tasks outside of work hours or that you should work twice as hard to make it in time for dinner. PTO? We don’t know her.
Your boss has a problem with boundaries. There are a few reasons why: they lack respect for your time or your teammates' abilities. For the former, you can get the hint if you keep getting Slack messages on your sick days or if you’re feeling pressure to be constantly “on.” In this case, you may need to work up the courage to have a serious conversation about boundaries and what this behavior does to your mental health. For the latter, your boss may think you’re the only person suited for all tasks. In this case, try to talk to them about the pressures they feel and reason that every teammate is needed for these goals. Delegation may be uncomfortable, but suggest a few trustworthy faces and tasks and start passing the ball.
Your boss is toxic. It's hard to notice until you share a story and watch a friend react. These bosses inspire the most vibrant anecdotes. A friend of mine told me about a recent incident at her dental residency program. She suggested a procedure on a very sick patient and her supervisor started yelling at her. He questioned her abilities and asked, "You wouldn't treat your mother with that procedure, would you?" Three months later, her entire class agreed her procedure was the only option, and the same supervisor took credit for her idea. To make matters worse, he berated her for not treating the patient sooner.
This story echoes a familiar thread among most gaslighters. They question your abilities through aggression or manipulation. They prey on insecurities. They take credit for your ideas and sabotage your progress. It's an unfortunate cycle that not many people have the financial privilege to break. It may seem counterintuitive that a company leader would sabotage a workplace's progress and growth, but these managers get their kicks from power over others.
Gaslighting isn’t always publically toxic, however. Some managers are insidious in less obvious ways. They may wait until a private 1-1 to be inappropriate or manipulative, where they can have more deniability. Others purposely “forget” to invite teammates to meetings or change expectations for a project at a whim. These managers suck and they don't give a f*ck about you.
There are a few strategies for handling a gaslighter, told from the experts at Harvard Business Review. First, look to your support network and sanity check your experiences. Try to identify if this is gaslighting or a bad case of another bad boss style. Second, document every interaction you have with your boss and copy other teammates when possible. Third, do your best to minimize contact with your manager and take care of your mental health. These situations are difficult and hard to escape, so form a clear game plan with documentation and proof as best as possible.
People leave bad managers, not bad companies. There's plenty of ways a boss can be terrible to their employees, and unfortunately all that stems from a lack of trust and an overwhelming sense of fear. If you relate to any of these points, we've collected a few resources to help:
Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.