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Top Traits of Bad Managers: 'Clueless,' 'Focus on Negatives'

Survey finds most workers have had a bad boss

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

​She is slow to praise but quick to point out errors.

He's holed up in his corner office and consumed with leadership meetings, engaging with workers only during the holiday party.

The "bad boss" can be "bad" for any number of reasons, according to a survey by Chicago-based LaSalle Network, a national staffing and recruiting firm that found—among other things—that most people have had a bad boss but more than half never told other leaders.

Why not?

"There could be a number of reasons why respondents didn't report bad bosses to leaders," said Jessica Schaeffer, marketing director at LaSalle Network. "Fear of losing their job, fear of being viewed as a gossip or having their claims not taken seriously, and fear that their comments would make their way back to their boss and make the situation worse."

[SHRM members-only discussion: Interested in talking about bad bosses? Start the conversation on SHRM Connect]

The survey, released in October, canvassed more than 1,000 workers by e-mail between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16.

Among the findings:

  • 84 percent of respondents have had a bad boss.
  • 43 percent quit the company because of the bad boss.
  • 59 percent would have stayed if given the opportunity to report to someone else.
  • 55 percent never reported the bad boss's behavior to leadership.

Employees who do come forward, Schaeffer said, "typically trust that their voices will be heard, believe their opinions will be shared in a safe space, believe their jobs are secure, or have a group of people who are coming forward with them and believe in the power of numbers."

The survey also sought to uncover the main characteristics that respondents attributed to bad bosses.

More than half (56 percent) said their bad boss only noticed negative things about the workers' performance, never the positives.

"It is extremely unfortunate that many managers spend time focusing on the negatives and the mistakes their staff makes and less time praising the positive," Schaeffer said. "Research has proven that managers who focus on recognition and positive reinforcement have employees who are more engaged and more committed to working hard."

Some managers focus on the negative, she said, because of pressure to deliver.

"If their team falls short, they are concerned with how it reflects on them and so they pass their frustrations along to their staff," she said. "However, for many, I think it is a lack of awareness. They may not realize how little praise and recognition they are giving and what it's doing to their team. They are fixated on the end product, making their staff and the company better, and ensuring they are able to deliver on their promises with the quality they expect. Perhaps they didn't have a manager who believes in the power of praise and they haven't experienced the impact [this] can make in their everyday work."

Almost half of respondents (45 percent) said they considered their supervisor to be a bad boss because he or she cared only about themselves, not about their staff.

Forty-four percent said the bad boss was "clueless," never knew what was going on at the organization or was forgetful.

"Clueless bosses are typically those who don't know what's happening in the company, what's happening on their team and how their work affects the larger organization," Schaeffer said. "They are typically in the dark on a variety of topics, and it can be frustrating to work with them as they don't have the answers to questions pertinent to a situation or project. A clueless boss doesn't necessarily signal an incompetent boss, though; they could be clueless because of a lack of curiosity or merely because information isn't disseminated throughout the organization freely … but that doesn't mean they aren't good at their jobs."

Finally, about one-third (31 percent) said the bad boss was simply absent.

Absent bosses can take many different forms, Schaeffer said.

"They could be managers who travel regularly and spend little time in the office; they could be managers who work remotely and don't have much contact with their teams; or they could be a manager who works in the office with you every day but just doesn't spend time with [the] staff and doesn't seem fully present during conversations and meetings."

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