Characteristics of really bad bosses

By Clinton O. Longenecker

Executive Summary
An applied research study ferreted out the top “dirty dozen” characteristics of bad bosses. Such managers not only make life miserable for your employees, but hamper organizational performance. It is imperative to recognize what makes a bad boss and take steps to ameliorate the problems they can cause — either by getting the bad boss to change or by changing the bad boss.

“I once had a boss who was so bad that I had to ask myself on a daily basis if this was really happening or [if] it was just a bad dream. … I kept thinking to myself, ‘How is it possible that a manager can do these things and still keep his job?’” — an information technology leader

For the past two decades, an ongoing applied research study has found that high-performing business leaders have a common set of leadership practices that allow them to produce consistently superior performance. The successful ones create clear focus on desired outcomes, properly equip their operations for high performance, build strong working relationships and foster teamwork. Managers in this league work hard to create a climate where processes and people are developed constantly and employees receive ongoing feedback and coaching, and they strive to maintain a work-life balance, despite what we might hear or read to the contrary.

On the other hand, the causes of managerial failure are, in many cases, more complex. And while managers can find themselves struggling for a period of time, there is a huge difference between managers who have a tough time and flat-out bad bosses. A qualitative study asked experienced business leaders to describe the characteristics of their worst boss ever. The highlights form the basis of this article. The findings provide an opportunity to look at the characteristics that will cause business leaders to lose the support and trust of the very people that they need to get results, ultimately earning them the label “bad boss.”

Researching the details

To explore the characteristics of truly bad bosses, the qualitative research study sampled 187 seasoned business leaders from cross sections of U.S. manufacturing and service enterprises. The sample was 72 percent male and 28 percent female with an average age of 43. They averaged more than 14 years of managerial experience. Participant managers were asked to "identify the worst boss that they had ever worked for during their career."

Then, participants described the specific behaviors, practices and characteristics that made this individual highly ineffective and, ultimately, the respondent’s worst boss. Responses were content analyzed, and frequency counts were tabulated for each characteristic. Participants identified on average 6.7 key characteristics of these bad bosses.

These 12 shouldn’t rule

“Everybody that I know has had a bad boss at one time or another during their career.” — a senior human resources leader for a Fortune 1000 manufacturing company

Figure 1 summarizes the top 12 characteristics with attached response percentages. Below, we discuss these traits, how they damage performance, and how to keep these problems from becoming part of your leadership behaviors.

1. Bad bosses are arrogant, prideful, inflexible and always right. Participants made it clear that arrogance is the quickest way to being viewed as a bad boss. Leaders were described as being "cocky," "pleased with themselves” and even “narcissistic.” These leaders quickly “turn off” their direct reports and cause many other problems that limit their performance. These negative character qualities install a barrier in the relationship between these bosses and their direct reports. This barrier can cause employees to minimize contact, avoid their superiors altogether, fail to share information, and withhold their opinions about what really is going on in the operation. In the words of one participant, "When you work for an egomaniac who believes that [he is] smarter than everyone else around them, only bad things happen." Possessing an elevated sense of oneself quickly damages working relationships and ensures less than optimal performance.

Recommendation: Stay humble. Remember that arrogance kills working relationships and careers, and it can create a real barrier to high performance.

2. Bad bosses are unprincipled, untrustworthy, misrepresent the truth and lie. Bad bosses are not trusted by the people who work for them, and frequently they have a host of character issues that damage their ability to lead. These bad bosses are known to be untrustworthy, often misrepresent facts and information and even will lie when they believe it will serve them. In addition, they lack character and integrity in their dealings.

This untrustworthiness causes a wide variety of workplace problems that damage leaders’ credibility and their ability to bring out the best in their people. One participant described his worst boss as having "the ability to breathe mistrust, deceit and falsehoods into every working relationship without even trying." When people believe that their boss has no character and is untrustworthy, they will not be in a position to maximize performance.

Recommendation: For a leader, character always counts. An untrustworthy business leader makes it difficult, if not impossible, to produce superior results over the long run.

3. Bad bosses fail to create clear direction and clarify performance expectations. One of the more interesting findings is that bad bosses frequently violate the most elementary principles of leadership: creating vision, direction and clear performance expectations. A lack of vision and direction causes confusion and uncertainty among employees about where they are headed and what they are trying to accomplish. At the same time, when a manager does not clarify expectations for their workgroup and individuals, numerous performance problems emerge. These include planning and resource allocation difficulties, a limited sense of priorities, a lack of goal clarity and the sense of guessing about how to accomplish desired outcomes that never have been stated clearly and established. Bad bosses have people working for them without a sense of purpose, which creates fear, uncertainty, doubt, inefficiencies, morale problems and even chaos. This sparks an unhealthy situation because employees never are quite sure where they are going and how they are going to get there.

Recommendation: To be an effective leader requires the creation of a clear and unambiguous sense of direction and clear performance expectations that are known and understood by all.

4. Bad bosses are ineffective at providing effective performance feedback and recognition. This tendency might include only providing their employees with a steady dose of negative feedback or no feedback at all. At the same time, these managers are reluctant to provide their employees with the recognition that they need to feel good about what they are doing at work. Operating in an environment where there is little or no feedback or recognition can have a debilitating effect on employee performance, job satisfaction and motivation. One participant made the issue clear when she stated, “Effective feedback can really enhance performance. But my worst boss never gave constructive or positive feedback, which made me feel unappreciated and disenfranchised, and our whole department felt the same way. Needless to say it was not a productive environment.”

Recommendation: People want and need ongoing, balanced performance feedback and recognition for their efforts. Not providing it is a sure-fire way to demoralize a workforce.

5. Bad bosses are really bad communicators. For leaders to be effective in the 21st century, it is imperative that they understand what is going on around them and make sure that they are understood. Participants made it clear that bad bosses are notorious for their poor communication skills and practices. They habitually are unwilling to listen to their employees, customers, co-workers and other stakeholders. And when business leaders are unwilling to listen to what is going on, they are not in a position to understand what is happening, be it good or bad.

Failing to listen sends a powerful message to employees that their opinions are neither appreciated nor valued. When a manager fails to share information and keep their people informed about what is going on, performance will suffer. In the words of one participant, “It’s not that he couldn’t communicate, but it’s that he wouldn’t communicate with his people, and that created a situation in which everyone felt as if we were operating in a fog on a daily basis.” When both leaders and employees operate in an "information fog," performance can go south quickly.

Recommendation: Information is the lifeblood of any organizational activity. Effective leaders work hard to keep their people equipped with the information they need to do their jobs, all while demonstrating a willingness to listen and understand what is happening around them.

6. Bad bosses are erratic and have unpredictable behavior and moods. The managers in this study provided a wide variety of colorful examples of bad bosses whose behavior and moods were described as being "unpredictable," "volatile," "explosive," "bad-tempered," "unstable," "impulsive," "Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde-like," among others. When a leader’s behavior is unpredictable and subject to wide emotional swings, it has a chilling effect on the people who report to that boss. On one day, the leader’s behavior might be appropriate, even effective. The next day the boss might be moody, unapproachable, mean-spirited, angry, sarcastic, negative or exhibit any number of dysfunctional patterns. This creates the lasting impression that employees never can be quite sure where their boss is coming from.

This tendency of being erratic and unpredictable causes their workers to operate in a vacuum of uncertainty, never sure "which boss" will show up. This uncertainty makes it difficult to secure the respect and loyalty of their people. One participant stated, “If you are never quite sure where your boss is coming from, you probably will avoid them whenever possible, which is never a good thing over the long run.” In the end, unpredictability creates a great deal of workplace drama and makes it difficult to produce superior results.

Recommendation: Effective leaders demonstrate consistency in their behavior and emotional stability, which can help bring out the best in people rather than creating a climate of drama, uncertainty, unpredictability and doubt.

7. Bad bosses take credit and avoid blame. Truly bad bosses quickly grab the headlines or the fame for shining successes, but they demonstrate reluctance to admit any role in substandard performance. This causes people to lose respect for the leader. Participants used such words as selfish, self-centered and greedy, among others, to describe the fact that many bad bosses make success all about themselves and failure all about others. Such leaders ignore the efforts of others, which demotivates and demoralizes their people, bringing with it the inevitable negative consequences.

Recommendation: Effective leaders are quick to praise the efforts of others when things go well and equally quick to take responsibility for problems or performance that is not where it needs to be.

8. Bad bosses do not plan effectively and are crisis-driven. Planning is and always will be one of the most important practices associated with high performance. Respondents made it clear that this is a serious shortcoming of many bad bosses. When a business leader systematically anticipates future organizational needs and develops a plan of action to address them, the likelihood of success increases. Conversely, the bad bosses described in this study were not adept at planning, whether it was operational, tactical or strategic.

This lack of anticipation and planning led bad bosses to being described frequently as firefighters, self-induced crisis managers or panic mongers. These descriptors made it clear that participants were frustrated that what should have been normal daily activity frequently turned into crises, panic and poor performance because of their leaders’ failures. One participant said it best: "Work is stressful enough without having a boss that creates additional stress because they simply don’t take the time to plan. ... A real crisis is one thing; a self-induced crisis is another thing altogether, and it gets old quickly."

Recommendation: Effective leaders take the time to anticipate what is coming and what is needed for success and to develop plans that enable teams and individuals to perform at an optimal level without a lot of surprises.

9. Bad bosses do not develop their people or help them get ahead. It is important to note that bad bosses don’t try to increase the talents of their employees or help them seek out career or development opportunities. While successful leaders almost always are credited with pushing their people forward, bad bosses behave in the opposite, neglectful fashion. This is not surprising given the earlier findings that bad bosses tend to be egocentric, self-centered and narcissistic. Employees are interested in working for a manager who will help them develop their skills and prepare them for their next career move. In the words of one participant: "My very best boss was one that pushed me to get better and looked for ways for me to get promoted, while my worst boss was the exact opposite. [My worst boss] didn’t give a hoot about helping me improve my performance or develop skills that might help me get promoted. … The difference was night and day."

Recommendation: Real leaders look for ways to help their people develop skills, and they seek out opportunities to help their employees advance their careers.

10. Bad bosses do not solve problems or improve processes. Most organizations are experiencing tremendous competitive pressure these days. This, in turn, places a significant burden on leaders and their workers to find new and better ways to compete. Study participants said truly bad bosses are ineffective in this regard because they are not quick to solve problems and remove barriers that damage performance. Bad bosses were described as people who are unwilling to take risks, defenders of the status quo, staying in their comfort zone, and hoping problems will just go away.

This inability to remove performance barriers and improve processes was described as having a powerful debilitating effect on employees. Performance barriers and ineffective processes have byproducts among employees that include frustration, demotivation, withdrawal and even anger.

Recommendation: Real leaders achieve superior results by rapidly removing performance barriers. Good bosses make sure that process improvement is an ongoing priority to achieve desired results and make it easier for people to get their work done.

11. Bad bosses are technically incompetent and lack talent. It is somewhat obvious that bad bosses frequently lack the requisite skill set to be effective as leaders. This "skill gap" can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways, and many are described in the first 10 key findings above.

But when managers do not have the skills or talents necessary to perform their job effectively, their employees lose on several fronts. First, their performance suffers as their boss has not set the stage for success. Second, they frequently are frustrated by the fact that they are being asked to follow a leader who does not have the talent necessary to lead. Third, employees have to deal with the problems created by their bad boss’ incompetence. When taken together, bad bosses lack the technical, managerial and leadership talents necessary to bring out the best in people. And to make things worse, these bad bosses frequently are unaware of their deficiencies and/or are unwilling to take the steps necessary to improve their talents.

Recommendation: It is critically important that the skill set of leaders meets the demands of their jobs. When "skill gaps" exist, specific actions must be taken to improve leaders' talents so that they are in a position to compete at the highest level.

12. Bad bosses make unwise, ill-informed and ineffective decisions. Already, we have discussed that, from the view of their employees, bad bosses described in this study have ego, character, communications, planning and interpersonal deficiencies. It is easy to see how these characteristics reduce a manager’s effectiveness as a decision maker. In the words of one participant, "One of the byproducts of being a bad boss to begin with was that when it was time to make decisions they frequently did so poorly informed, without counsel, and in a hurry, with a mindset that had little to do with the realities that we were facing. … And they never learned from their mistakes." This lack of information, understanding and input from others was the hallmark of bad decision making regardless of the domain: tactical, operational or strategic. In the end, bad bosses fueled their legacy by making poor decisions that damaged performance and morale.

Recommendation: Effective leaders develop decision-making talents by using good information, seeking the input of others and learning from their mistakes. Taken together, these “dirty dozen” characteristics represent the ingredients for highly ineffective managers who will not bring out the best in their people, create a high-performance work environment and produce superior results.

A call for action

Managers, CEOs and anybody involved in business or industrial management would be making a mistake by not thinking about and acting on the characteristics of bad bosses in their networks. Taking action can happen at three different levels of people: individual managers, employees of bad bosses, or organizational leaders who employ bad bosses.

  • Individual managers: Every manager would be well-served to review the recommendations to see if they are doing things necessary to bring out the best in their people. They also should review the issues that can cause managers difficulty in their quest for better performance. Increasing your personal effectiveness by ameliorating these 12 "bad boss" characteristics can go a long way to improving your success as a leader.
    The key question: What specific things am I doing to be a great leader to my people?
  • Those who work for bad bosses: If this material directly pertains to your situation with your current boss, you need to consider several things. First, in an ideal world, people who work for a chronically bad boss who affects their performance and mental health brush up their resumés and take steps to move on. In challenging economic times, this is not always possible, even though continuing to work for a bad boss can be a career-damaging experience that sucks the joy out of life. Consider developing a realistic exit strategy that takes into account the pros and cons of your current situation. Second, work to know and understand how your boss is hampering your performance and take proactive steps to minimize your boss’ influence. It is imperative that you work hard to achieve desired levels of performance regardless of your boss. Finally, remember that the probability of you changing your boss’ behavior and leadership style is exceptionally low. Any changes most likely will have to be on your part, either via your work behavior or a change in employment.
    The key question: If you work for a bad boss, do you have a plan to help you deal with the situation over both the short and long run?
  • Leaders who employ bad bosses: If you are a leader of other leaders, it is critical that you make sure your managers do not display a disproportionate number of these counterproductive characteristics. Stated more directly, if you have bad bosses working for you, it reflects poorly on you. Your bad bosses can damage short-term and long-term organizational performance by their action or inaction in unpredictable ways, which will reflect poorly on your performance. Despite any reasons for inaction, you have two choices: Change the person or change the person. Ineffective leaders should, with your guidance and leadership, have an opportunity to turn their performance around. If they continue down the road of ineffectiveness, then, as an effective leader, you have no choice but to move that bad boss to a new employment situation so you and your people can get back to the business of getting desired results.
    The key question: Are you taking appropriate action when one of your leaders is behaving in an ineffective/unproductive fashion?

It is important to note that bad bosses are a collection of ineffective leadership practices as well as a host of personality and character maladies. Bad bosses can do a great deal of damage to an organization, but they are a reality of organizational life. Taking the time to think through the findings of this study and to act on this information might go a long way to helping managers improve performance and avoid ending up on some employee’s list of worst bosses.

Clinton O. Longenecker is a business consultant, author, speaker, executive coach and the Stranahan Professor of Leadership and Organizational Excellence at the University of Toledo. He has published more than 130 journal articles and is the co-author of the best-selling books Two Minute Drill: Lessons on Rapid Organizational Improvement from America’s Greatest Game and Getting Results: Five Absolutes for High Performance. Longenecker specializes in rapid performance improvement in both his research and consulting.

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