Of bosses, both good and bad

“All good bosses are alike; each bad boss is bad in his own way.”

Tolstoy this isn’t. Nonetheless, it serves reasonably well as a distillation of recent research on leadership. Good bosses tend to do a lot of the same things: trust, respect, protect and empower their underlings; treat people equally (and well); communicate clearly; listen carefully; and provide useful, timely feedback.

Bad bosses, meanwhile, can be bad in countless ways. They might have bad hygiene, or they might intrude on your personal space. They might come late and leave early every day, expecting others to get the real work done — but also expecting to take credit for others’ accomplishments and awards. They likely excel at indecision — or at deciding, but then changing their minds without rhyme or reason.

More dangerously, they might not have a clue what they’re doing (or why), simply because they were promoted to the point of their own incompetence — à la the Peter Principle.

Bad bosses are sometimes pyromaniacs (literally, figuratively, or both), managers who make “every little problem a three-alarm fire.” Patricia Gray detailed a “workplace pyro” she called “Cruella,” who reminds me of bosses I’ve known over the years: “Her direct reports were young, bright, ambitious, eager to please. But she never trusted them to execute on their own. Every project became a crisis, every meeting a fire drill. She would make assignments at night and on weekends. When she was out visiting clients, she kept the team jumping via e-mails — each one marked URGENT, including the one about the typo in the footnote of a routine report. ‘I drove everyone crazy, and I didn’t even realize it half the time,’ she says.”

This is a key feature of many bad bosses: they don’t know they’re bad. In fact, they think they’re good, and they think their underlings universally adore them. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton has written, in Good Boss, Bad Boss (2010), “People in power tend to become self-centered and oblivious to what their followers need, do, and say.”

They have no idea how others view them. It is for this reason that Sutton suggests every boss offer a so-called “bosshole bounty”: $20 to any employee willing to tell the boss he’s been a “jerk.” Most bosses, of course, wouldn’t dream of inviting — let alone paying for! — such criticism. But that’s precisely Sutton’s point: bosses who do so will almost certainly gain new respect from underlings. More importantly, they’ll gain insight into how others perceive them.

What can you do when your boss is so bad you want to quit? (And remember, “people do not quit organizations, they quit bad bosses,” according to Robert Hogan, whom Sutton cites.)

This is a question that Jack Gabarro, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, and I recently tackled in an interview on BAM! Radio Network with our host, Holly Elissa Bruno.

Gabarro is well-known for the concept of “managing” one’s boss, which he detailed in a 1980 Harvard Business Review piece co-authored with Harvard’s John Kotter. “Managing your boss” has since become a classic of management literature, having been reprinted in HBR in 1993, 2005 and 2007.

On our radio show, Gabarro said: “If you’re having a problem with your boss, it is seldom all one-sided. … Start off with the premise that you are contributing some percentage of the problem, if for no other reason [than] because you don’t understand who your boss is, what her strengths and weaknesses are, what his style or preferences [are] for receiving information or discussing either problematic or sensitive issues…”

He also stressed the importance of understanding that bosses are human beings with foibles — they’re not infallible. Also, bosses are dependent on their underlings, regardless of whether they realize it.

Gabarro and I agreed that going over your boss’s head to complain about him or her doesn’t often end well, though it may sometimes seem like the only option. To deal with a difficult boss, Gabarro recommends first understanding who your boss is — the context in which he or she lives, and the pressures he or she routinely faces — and then conducting a self-assessment to determine your own strengths and weaknesses. Only then can you sort out the best course of action to take, and you might just realize in the process that you bear some sliver of responsibility for the issues you’re having with your boss.

When it comes to bosses at the school level, we’re talking department heads and principals. As I said on the show, I think the best principals have realized that the way they can be most helpful to teachers is to get out of the way — let teachers teach. Good principals get teachers whatever they need to do their jobs well. If teachers are happy and succeeding — which is to say, if students are learning — everything else follows. But this is a very teacher-centric perspective, I acknowledge, and so it’s important to remind teachers that they serve different constituencies and face different pressures than principals do.

A principal can see his or her chief role as satisfying parents or the district superintendent, but ultimately I think the smarter route is for a principal to look out for his or her teachers first and foremost. This isn’t a popular position these days — given the frequent claims that teachers are overpaid and under-worked — but it does reflect this reality: you can’t have a good school without good teachers. (By contrast, you can have a bad school with a good principal, or a good school with a bad principal. But never will you find a good school with all bad teachers, or a bad school with all good teachers.)

Good teachers are happy teachers — teachers whom their principals trust, respect, protect and empower.

You can listen to the entire radio show here.