Horrible Boss Workarounds

Bad bosses are generally more inept than evil, and often aren't purposefully bad, says Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She discusses common bad-boss behaviors, and how good colleagues can mobilize to overcome the roadblocks. Key concepts include:
  • Common traits of bad bosses include a failure to communicate goals effectively, if at all; a failure to realize that employees have more to offer than their job descriptions dictate, and a tendency to get caught up in the details to the detriment of the big picture.
  • Employees can work around bad-boss roadblocks by proactively mobilizing their peers toward a common goal.
by Carmen Nobel

On film, few characters are more obviously villainous than the extremely bad boss. There's Star Wars' Darth Vader (who manages a disrespectful underling by strangling him with his mind), Katharine Parker in Working Girl (who shamelessly steals ideas from the movie's hero), John Milton in The Devil's Advocate (who is literally the devil incarnate), the eponymous villains in the recent hit Horrible Bosses (whose infractions include cocaine abuse and sexual harassment) …the list goes on and on.

Reality is more nebulous, of course. Bad bosses are generally more inept than they are evil, and often aren't purposefully bad, says Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who has authored several business management books, including Confidence: How Winning and Losing Streaks Begin and End and SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good "What's horrible is often in the eye of the beholder," she says. "There are many people who complain about their bosses without taking a look at themselves, and vice versa."

Kanter recently sat down with HBS Working Knowledge to discuss some of the factors that create bad bosses—and what employees can do to resist them. As she states in a recent column in Harvard Business Review, "The best cure for horrible bosses is wonderful colleagues."

Bad boss behavior #1: failure to communicate. At any level of management, it's important that bosses effectively communicate company or team goals from the get-go. "Empowerment can happen only when there's a consensus on goals and an agreement that certain standards have to be met," Kanter says. "If there isn't agreement in the beginning, that's when certain situations start to unravel."

But problems arise when bosses fail to realize that they're not communicating clearly. Kanter cites an old joke as an example:

A man drives to a gas station to fill up his tank, and the attendant can't help noticing that there's a penguin in the backseat of the car. "Yes," the man says. "I found him there this morning, and I don't know what to do with him." The attendant suggests that the man take the penguin to the zoo right away, and the man agrees that this is an excellent idea. But the next day, when the man returns to the same gas station, the clerk notices that the penguin is still in the backseat of the car—only this time it's wearing sunglasses. "Hey," the clerk says. "I thought I told you to take the penguin to the zoo." The man nods and says, "I did take him to the zoo. He had such a great time that I decided to take him to the beach, too!"

Miscommunication often leads to situations in which bosses throw up their hands in frustration, believing that their employees are incapable of delivering good ideas, when in fact the problem is that the employees just aren't clear on the mission.

"Sometimes [bosses] have it in their head that they know what they're driving at, but they don't always bother to tell everyone what's in their head, and if they do, the translation is not always clear," Kanter says. "So CEOs make speeches all the time and think everyone is interpreting their words in the exact same way, and they're not. And they're surprised later to find out that what they thought was going to happen didn't exactly happen. Constant, consistent communication is important."

Bad boss behavior #2: pigeonholing. Another common bad-boss trait is the inability to accept the idea that employees' skills and talents probably exceed their job descriptions. Not only is this attitude demoralizing for employees, but it discourages collaboration and idea sharing as well. For example, "there was one CEO of a company in the IT industry who kept everyone on his executive team confined to narrow little boxes," Kanter says. "One member of the team had actually built several successful IT companies and so knew a lot about marketing. But because he had been hired for a technology job, the CEO would listen to him only on technology matters."

Bad boss behavior #3: inability to zoom in and out. Kanter also stresses the importance of zooming—the ability to view the world through an adjustable lens as the situation demands, examining particular details in certain situations and maintaining a broad view of the mission in others. Talented bosses know how and when to adjust their lenses. But for those who can't or won't adjust, staying stuck on zoomed out is the lesser of two evils, Kanter says.

"If I had to choose between getting too close to the details or getting too far out and losing the situation in the clouds, I would always go for zooming out," Kanter says. "If employees are forced to stay too focused on the details, without thorough preparation, without clear goals, without a larger vision, without a sense of purpose, then they are left to be dependent on the daily moods or whims of a boss. Bosses who spend too much time zooming in on the details are more likely to lose sight of the big picture and the goals."

In those cases, Kanter says, it's up to the employees to keep each other on track.

Working Around A Bad-boss Roadblock

In situations where the boss is obviously impeding progress or morale, Kanter recommends that employees try to mobilize their peers to create a course of action. She acknowledges that this is easier said than done, especially when a bad boss has created a culture of fear. But teaming up to effect change need not require a palace coup.

"If you test the waters in very small and diplomatic ways, you're more likely to get a hearing at higher levels when you come with a constructive solution—not one that is a demand, but rather one that has alternatives and options associated with it," she says. "Self-organizing is the new mode for getting things done in companies. Yes, you have a set area of responsibility in your job, but you also have the ability to see an issue or a problem, to find a few other people who see the issue or problem, and to try to find a constructive solution. If you start small, then you can overcome the courage gap. People are timid and scared that people are too set in their ways. But in fact the boss may not be sure what the solution should be and is just waiting for someone to come forward."

In her classes, Kanter teaches the case of the upscale cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma, where the CEO repeatedly eschewed the idea of online sales. He wasn't a terrible boss, but he didn't use computers himself and didn't see the value in the strategy. So a group of self-starters went ahead and designed a small, low-risk e-commerce pilot anyway. It tested well, the CEO was at last impressed, and the project moved forward. "Williams-Sonoma ended up with one of the best e-commerce sites on the web in the early years of e-commerce," she says. "And it was a small group of believers that made that happen."

Ideally, of course, collaboration is borne of shared excitement over a shared goal rather than shared frustration over a lousy boss. Kanter notes that many well-meaning companies attempt to encourage collaboration by assembling groups of employees with shared traits rather than shared goals.

"I've seen a lot of people try to form networks in companies: Let's get all the women together, let's get all the working parents together, let's get all the Asian Americans together. That's usually good for one or two lunches if there's no agenda. The secret of collaboration is that you have a task that you care about together."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • lyndsey aldridge
    • www.mywaystosuccess.com
    Nice article - I always think that "bad bosses" as you point out are inapt and insecure in some way - if you realize this, it helps you to put up with their "bad behavior"
    Focus is the answer to most problems in life!
    • Alex Newton
    • Owner, Siteworks, Inc.
    One of my favorite quotes on communication (which is not from one of my favorite people):

    "Never give an order that can be understood - Always give orders that can't be misunderstood."

    - General Douglas MacArthur
    • Dr. S A Visotsky
    • Chairman & CEO, Vitech Group LLC
    1) Communication: The Board tells it's CEO, the CEO tells his Managers, Managers tell the Dept. Heads. Never up, always down. Concerns, warnings, & complaints should all have a laid out process of reporting, which operates outside of the aforementioned "top down comm theory". Open Door Policies are ok, but you have to notify for Chain of Authority, to exercise this special right. It's not to be used to exact revenge upon co-workers, or Mgrs. whom may be disliked for doing their job.

    2) Pigeonholing: If someone has a bright idea, there is a box on the wall, "employee suggestion program", write it down, stick it in. My company, my business plan, your company, you can do it your way. Any questions, see 1) Communication.

    3) Zooming: Planning and accountability allow for "zooming" as you put it. Chain of Custody for all projects should always be strictly adhered to, allowing for accountability. This in turn allows one to see the bigger picture at every stage of each project, at all times, thereby ensuring control from the top.

    Higher always pushes to lower, and Project Mgrs., no matter how big their ego gets, are still only pawns of the Project Mgt. Office, never the other way around.

    Reporting and accountability on a daily basis cracks the whip of productivity, the reward is doing what you agreed to do for pay, it's just busniess, not personal.

    Keep your emotion to yourself, and you're better off for it.
    • Edward Stern
    • Union VP for OSHA, AFGE Local 12
    - This is an interesting and useful article. But it is not about "horrible bosses". Rather, it is about "annoyingly defective bosses". Or pick your own equivalent phrase for poor management.
    - Please keep writing about poor managers, but please save the term "horrible bosses" for the ones who verbally abuse, humiliate, and undermine their workers, out of jealousy, inadequacy, or fear.
    -(I wrote the chapter on workplace bullying in Pat Biles new book: Halt the Violence, on aawpv.com.)
    • Leadfooted Rabbit
    Nice read.

    My boss takes bad to the next level, a dangerous level. I dubbed her the woodland creature. Read the chronicles of the woodland creature here:

    • Atul Guglani
    • Director, Mantex Technologies
    The apt title would be " Good" , " Bad" and the " Evil". That is how the bosses should get categorized.
    Sometimes, it is not just the performance and achievements which need to be factored for a superior boss, but the general values of kindness, compassion and overall humane approach to the people around them. However, more and more, it is being seen that " Aggression " is considered a virtue of Strength. And it is this aggression, which accumulates and changes to " Evil"

    I had this very mean President, who would call me each time in the morning 7 AM, when he would sack a man out and declared that he finally got him out . Till one time, I told him, Mr President, Sales guys are like "Pied Pipers" and when they go, they also take the customers away with them. Finally a full division which had the highest ROCE was lost and that biz shut down.

    Unless Power is vested into the hands of leaders who have clear thinking and not evil thinking, courage and not aggression , sensitivity and not super heroism , expertise and not super speeches, the evil will anyway slip onto such people and businesses lost. We have seen this in case of " Enron, Madhoff, or for that matter Steve Jobs ex companies"
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A horrible boss is one who creates situations meant to keep everyone, himself included, tense. People are generally scared of such a person and are prone to not giving their best to the organisation by strictly restricting their performance to what is laid down in their position descriptions. Initiative and enthusiasm are not displayed for fear of the reaction these would receive from this person with a critical bent of mind. He is a fault finding machine and is never a friend-philosopher-guide/mentor, qualities very desirable for peaceful working environment.
    A boss of this type is a crude mixture of indicision and inferiority complex. Self indiscipline and procrastination are his forte although he expects everyone else to be otherwise. He steals credit for good performance and finds scapegoats even for what he may have been directly responsible. His HR decisions are never objective as he prefers sycophants to true performers. He is particularly jealous of more knowledged and skilled juniors whom he harms at the earliest opportunity devising wicked means.
    In short, he is a villain who ultimately takes the organisation to its doom.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    Interesting article - thank you.
    Do you think something akin to Gresham's Law (commonly over-simplified as "Bad money drives out good") seems to lurk behind all this?
    After all, bad bosses, values and behaviours tend to drive out good bosses, values and behaviours. Causes and cures may be sought and applied, but are usually ineffectual - so we all have to manage the consequences. We tend not to forgive the bad guys and the most common reason for "moving on" is our inability to change them - employees leave their bosses rather than their organizations. Now if employees could sack their bosses...!
    • Anonymous
    I've had a number of bosses, and some that I thought were horrible were indeed just not very good at communicating.
    In one situation, the entire department kept griping about not knowing what was going on and being informed of important developments after the fact. Our boss, who was really a very nice guy but we forgot about that in all our griping, was simply terrible at telling us what was going - in other departments, between ourselves, ... A simple thing such as a weekly meeting of the department, even without the boss if he was away, solved a huge number of those problems. At first the department fought the idea of the weekly meetings, but after a few weeks, attitudes changed.
    • Ajay Kumar Gupta
    • Doctoral Researcher and faculty ITM Business School, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India
    Other traits of horrible boss are "look busy". They always look busy even there is no work. This looks strategy to shadow their incompetence. They love to make issues. They need spiced news about people so that they can pass time for longer time. These traits, I have observed in my twenty years of experience partly in defence and partly in banking sector. Horrible bosses are position centric and they are more concerned about their position. They want to secure their position at any cost, even at the cost of others career. They believe in road blocking for ambitious and meritorious people so that they can have their path clear. These traits can be observed easily in the organisations, where there are no clear cut policies for promotion and transfer. People at the top level usually stay longer than usual period and do not let to replace their position. The reason is simple. They are so entitlement focussed that they want
    to enjoy their entitlement forever. Punishments to employees are prevalent in the organisations having more horrible bosses.
    Horrible bosses make employees sit late and even ask them to come on holidays (in India). They are usually absent during busy hours but present when there is time to pack up. The fact is that these people are incompetent and on shaky ground. And creating such environment is their best strategy to secure and protect their position. But the most important thing is that these kinds of practices prevail, where top management believe in such practices. Without sheltering these practices, horrible bosses cannot exist. Organisations, where transparency, accountability and honesty exist, horrible bosses generally do not exist. Where rumours and propagandas are discouraged, horrible bosses find difficult to adjust. People around horrible bosses are more culprits than anybody else. These people are aspiring horrible bosses. They do same things, which horrible bosses like. Honest, talented and deserving employees always suffer with horrible bosses.
    • David Lindsay
    • Lecturer/Tutor, Edinburgh Napier University
    Perhaps the solution to the "bad boss" situation is to adopt the "job rotation" model and have managers be elected for a period of -say -max 1 year -subsequent peer and employee assessment of their performance will wither extend or terminate their term and allow others to "have a go".. and perhaps we need to escape the idea that "managers" are somehow different from the rest of the workforce -embued with extra-terrestial powers, the wisdom of Solomon and the vision of Nostradamus - that somehow create an aura of untouchability eevn when their decisions and performance are seen to be tangibly under par..........