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Horrible bosses: how to spot them and handle them

23rd Aug 2011
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The difference between an authentic leader and a horrible boss would appear obvious.

But it’s not correct to say it all boils down to behaviour because some of the most authentic leaders I know are capable of behaving ‘poorly’ at times, says Gareth Chick, a director at Spring Partnerships.

The fundamental difference for me is one of motivation. Authentic leaders are motivated solely by doing what’s best for the organisation. Horrible bosses are motivated solely by doing what’s best for themselves.   This article looks at the eight core traits of horrible bosses and provides four strategies to help you handle them:     The eight traits of horrible bosses   1 A belief in the fourth law of thermodynamics   The three principle laws of thermodynamics explain how the physical universe works. Some physicists believe there is a fourth ‘Zeroth’ law, but horrible bosses know that it exists for sure.   The Zeroth law states that nothing happens unless the individual is physically there to witness it. It means that you can have been putting in 12 hour days, but if your horrible boss hasn’t see it, it will count for nothing.   2 Skilled and habitual liars   Horrible bosses lie. They have to because they are continually constructing reasons (excuses) for why their results are so poor. Of course, the lies are often not blatant as this could catch them out. So a typical example of a lie would be a massive generalisation or a statement of ‘fact’ that is, in reality, only their opinion.   If horrible bosses are challenged, they will counter with a well-rehearsed and vigorous defence of the ‘truth’. When coupled with their habit of ‘conveniently’ forgetting things that they have said or committed to, this trait is almost impossible to navigate.   3 Belittling people   It would be wrong to assume that horrible bosses are mere unconscious organisms, thrashing through the day without a strategy to be seen. They are, in fact, capable of some very proactive behaviour. One of these behaviours is to motivate you with humour, personal favours and familiarity. This situation manifests itself in a hugely inappropriate use of sexual innuendo, sarcasm, devising nicknames and the like.   Because toxic bosses often have to recover situations when they realise that they have gone too far, they have a tendency to use inappropriate rewards as bribes or to salve their own conscience too. They will even apologise, but only if they fear that a third party authority could be called in. This scenario is very belittling for everyone else.   4 Active promotion of a ‘them and us’ culture   ‘Them and us’ cultures are perhaps the most pernicious in organisational life, but horrible bosses are great promoters of them because they help their cause in two ways. Firstly, they can ‘divide and conquer’ their subordinates – the rationale is that if employees are fighting among themselves, they won’t notice how bad their boss is.   Secondly, they can avoid accountability for real results such as sales and profitability because they complain that they have to ‘waste’ too much time dealing with the dysfunctional nature of the organisation - a fact which they infer to be the fault of their superiors.   5 Vacillation   One of the hardest things about working for a horrible boss is that they vacillate so much. One day they will passionately believe in position X and the next they will lambast you for the utter stupidity of believing position X to be right.   While some horrible bosses will rather perversely appear trustworthy, this is generally only the case if their behaviour is relatively predictable. But truly horrible bosses are hard to take because their vacillating makes it almost impossible to take predict their response. As a result, any sort of proactive action is simply too risky.   6 Sulking   Horrible bosses are often nothing more than spoiled children and are needy and self-absorbed. When things don’t go their way or they don’t get the recognition or praise that they think is so clearly deserved, they sulk.   Since horrible bosses can also hold a grudge with superhuman intensity and relish (and for soooooo long.......), it is best not to upset them. In fact, you may even find yourself telling them how brilliant they are and how the team simply could not do without their leadership and ideas.   7 Bullying and manipulation   Bosses who hold their beliefs and views very passionately are often intimidating. Indeed, authentic leaders often worry that they have upset their staff by having to behave ‘unreasonably’ with them.   But horrible bosses bully people. Such behaviour can be overt in the form of swearing, shouting or generally being physically intimidating. But the truly horrible boss will know how to bully below the radar – belittling, criticising and undermining you. They are also skilled manipulators and know how to play on people’s fears and guilt.   8 Leaving others to carry the can   T S Eliot plaintively cried: “Macavity’s not there” in his famous poem. Macavity the mystery cat defied Scotland Yard because whenever it was about to be caught in the act, the cry would go up: “Macavity’s not there”.   The situation is similar with horrible bosses because they have a supreme ability to disappear when trouble strikes. They literally go missing, returning at a later date with some plausible excuse (of which they have a never-ending litany), incredulous that the crisis arose yet delighted that the world has again proven that bad things happen when they are not around. This means, they reason, that they are truly indispensible.    Four strategies for handling horrible bosses   The greatest single weapon for dealing with horrible bosses is awareness and an understanding that it is not about you. Horrible bosses are dangerous because they lead you to believe that it’s you rather than them at fault. But there are four possible ways of dealing with the situation:   1 Coping   Anyone can handle being managed by a horrible boss for a short period of time. It’s simply a matter of adopting, either individually or collectively, some coping mechanisms. These might include high levels of communication about activities, ensuring that they get the recognition, smiling inanely at their embarrassing humour or covering for them when they go AWOL.   The thing to do is to consciously list the behaviours that are offensive to you and come up with coping mechanisms for each one. This can almost become a kind of game, allowing you to keep your sanity and protect yourself throughout the duration of the coping period.   2 Outliving   Whereas by definition a coping strategy will not involve trying to change the boss but merely endure and survive them until something changes, adopting a strategy of outliving them is more proactive and designed to help bring about their demise.   Such an approach will likely take the form of a conspiracy with similarly beleaguered colleagues and may include covertly fostering relationships with third parties, particularly the horrible boss’s own superiors. It will also entail making sure that employees rather than the horrible boss are recognised for any successes.   3 Whistle-blowing   The scariest of all possible strategies is to expose the horrible boss for who they are. But a failed attempt at a coup will leave you in a worse position and probably make your eventual resignation inevitable.   Many employees, even if they have the personal strength and integrity to be a whistle-blower, refrain from such action because they cannot see a good outcome for either themselves or the organisation. If that is the case, the question becomes ‘why take the risk?’   4 Leaving   All the research shows that employees leave bosses rather than companies. Ultimately, you have the choice of quitting and this may actually be the only feasible course of action to resolve the insidious position that you find yourself in.   But this again is a tough call to make. Firstly, it means you have to find another job and potentially risk jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Secondly, if you feel you have been made to leave a job or company that you love because of one person, the situation will inevitably generate feelings of anger and frustration that you will have to deal with.     So while all of the strategies listed above have their upsides, they also have their drawbacks too. Therefore, as ever with these things, it boils down to ‘you pays your money and you takes your chance’.  Gareth Chick is a director at employee and leadership development consultancy, Spring Partnerships.

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By Dominicalan
23rd Aug 2011 17:01

Brilliant -quite brilliant

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Just visit our website - and ask for a free copy on the FREE TOOLBOX page


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