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5 Signs You're a 'Horrible Boss'—and a Path to Redemption

A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people at a meeting.

​Maybe there's something to the adage that employees don't leave terrible companies—they leave terrible bosses.

A recent study from Robert Half, a staffing firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., shows that 49 percent of staffers have quit their job because of a horrible boss. A 2019 research report by the Society for Human Resource Management, The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture: How Culture Impacts the Workforce—and the Bottom Line, stated that almost 60 percent of workers who left a job did so because of a manager. 

"We've all heard horror stories about difficult managers—or experienced one firsthand," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half. "Work styles and how well a person gets along with their supervisor can determine whether someone … remains at a company."

When an employee leaves a firm due to a toxic manager, that scenario leads not only to a loss of talent, but also to higher recruiting and training costs and potential dissent from employees left behind.

"Failure at the top inevitably works its way across the ranks, and the negative impacts are across the board, [including] missed opportunities, ideas or insights that would have otherwise been profitable," said Katherine King, founder of Invisible Culture, a New York City-based management consulting firm. "You also see less-engaged staff and clients; decreased creativity in the quality of the work; fractured group dynamics; and poor physical, mental and emotional health in the workplace."

Big Red Flags

There are things a self-aware manager can do to ascertain if his or her management style needs work. Here are five ways managers can fall short:

The "my way or the highway" boss. When a manager lets it be known that there's only one way to operate on the job—his or her way—the fallout can be substantial.

"Employees stop volunteering new ideas, which can shut down innovation," said Kelby Zorgdrager, chief executive officer at DevelopIntelligence, a software training firm in Boulder, Colo. "They also may stop offering feedback and cautions. Employees might mumble to themselves, 'You want it this way? OK. I'll give it to you this way, but don't come crying to me when customers get upset.' "

According to Zorgdrager, employees want the opportunity to use their intellect and experience to
solve problems and make a difference. "They won't get this chance under a 'my way or the highway' manager," he said. "So employers risk poor morale and attrition if they let this manager's behavior continue."

That's not all: Employees can be a manager's best eyes and ears regarding what's happening with the business. "But when managers fail to listen to employees, managers are flying blind," Zorgdrager said.

The "manager in name only" boss. A manager who has the title but does not actively manage is courting trouble.

"Often, it's a person who was an individual contributor but received a promotion to
people management," Zorgdrager said. "The person is still acting as an individual contributor,
focusing on their own project work instead of on the team they manage."

That management style doesn't cut it with staffers, as employees need direction, feedback and coaching.

"The problem is, this manager is too busy or disinterested to provide [guidance]," he adds. "This means employees are guessing how to address a task. They may or may not guess right. Team members may be working at cross purposes. This manager isn't present enough to notice if anything is off track."

Consequently, employees don't know what their manager expects of them nor get feedback, so they don't know if they are doing a good job or if the company appreciates their contributions.

"At that point, this manager's employees are at high risk for attrition," Zorgdrager said. "Employees want to feel valued, and they don't under this management style."

The "setting arbitrary and aggressive deadlines" boss. Jay Allen, a senior content publishing engineer at Microsoft Learn in Bellevue, Wash., used to work with a problematic boss at another company.

"Years later, some of the things this person did stand out to me as a huge warning flag," Allen said. "For example, my boss wanted to show to her superiors that she was getting things done and delivering results. This is especially important at [that organization], where one of the leadership company principles is 'Deliver results.'

"This frequently led to deadlines that were based solely on her conjecture and desires, not on discussions with those of us actually doing the work," Allen said.

The "throwing workers under the bus" boss. When impossible deadlines were missed, Allen said, "the stuff hit the fan, which led to additional toxic behavior from the same boss.

"When a piece of software I developed under an impossible deadline turned out to have major bugs in it, she blamed me," he added. "I pushed back and said she had set an arbitrary deadline. She then tried to say that I was the one who had set that deadline. She did this same thing several months later, after I had left, to another employee who pushed back on a deadline the manager had herself set.

"That manager was glad to take credit when we delivered on time and equally happy to make us look bad to upper management when we didn't," he added.

The "I hand out insults like candy" boss. Karen Condor, an insurance specialist at the Seattle-based life insurance comparison company QuickQuote, said she once worked for this kind of supervisor at a New England-based community bank.

"She hired me for the wrong reason: My neighbor, also a bank executive, basically nagged her into bringing me on board," Condor said.

Soon, the manager let Condor know she did not look the part of an office professional. "She told me this
three months into my tenure and strong-armed me to meet with an image professional who helped bank employees who needed an image makeover," Condor said.

The manager continued to be harsh and insulting. "On my first out-of-the-office trip with the team, she chastised me in public for not taking enough pictures of members and for wearing T-shirts and shorts as we were traipsing around national parks in summer heat," Condor said.

When the manager badgered her into taking on projects outside of the workplace, which were not paid, Condor had had enough. "I started saying no to her," she said.

Is There a Way Forward?

Is it possible for a bad boss to reclaim the respect of team members? "The answer to this really depends on the situation," Zorgdrager said. 

The motive: Can you, as a manager, ascertain what's driving your behavior? "For example, some individual contributors find people management a miserable fit," Zorgdrager said. "Being in a wrong-fit role can contribute to poor behaviors, such as snapping at employees."

The nature of the damage: Have you seen high attrition since you became a manager? Is it likely to continue if you stay in place?

Ownership of the problem: Can you accept responsibility for the problem, and do you think you're coachable? "If the manager does not accept responsibility and tries to shift blame to someone or something else, this is not a good sign," Zorgdrager adds. "When the manager is not open to coaching, there's not much opportunity for improvement."

It could be that "the manager needs to apologize to staff and ask that employees call out the poor behavior in real time," Zorgdrager said. He offered this sample language for managers who want to grow:

I have received feedback that I am too hands-off as a manager, not available enough for questions, not providing adequate guidance on projects, and not providing sufficient feedback and coaching.

As you know, I'm fairly new in this role, and I'm still finding my way. Clearly, I am falling short right now. I will be starting a manager training class next week and also have engaged a coach to work with me to become a more effective manager.

As I continue to learn, I ask for your feedback. If I'm doing something that is not helping the team or you as an individual, call me out on it in real time. Tell me what would be more helpful instead. Your feedback will enable me to serve you better.

"A manager who says this has a chance of reclaiming team respect," Zorgdrager said.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide


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