Bad bosses can be good for you

Posted in: Bloggery

One of the big challenges often faced by men and women in the corporate world is working with a ‘bad boss’. A bad boss can be described in many different ways –as a micro-manager, a control freak, arrogant, defensive, insensitive, a bully, untrustworthy, a poor listener, unwilling to accept others’ ideas – the list goes on. No-one enjoys working with a bad boss.

In our work with executives across organisations both large and small, we often hear anecdotes about poor leadership practices. In fact, when we ask candidates to identify characteristics essential for them to succeed in their next role, having a ‘good’ boss is often high on the list (e.g. ‘I need a boss who has a vision, empowers me, gives me interesting work that challenges and stretches me, advocates for his or her team, recognises and rewards good performance, listens, takes my views on board’ etc.). We all love working for these kinds of leaders.

Running a due diligence process in the final stages of a courtship is something we help our executives in transition undertake.  A big part of this is to help the person with whom we are working evaluate whether they would enjoy working with the  boss and peers in the potential next employer organisation.  Life is too short and precious to have a big chunk of it taken up with poor leadership practices.

Having said this, in the course of a role with a firm, others (such as the CEO or Board) may make changes, or bring people in who are in effect imposed on you:  we don’t always get to choose our bosses.

The challenge with good leadership practices is that, while they energise and motivate us, bring out our best, and help us achieve success, you may miss out on some learning opportunities that you may only get through exposure to a bad boss! Please don’t misunderstand us, we are not advocating or supporting bad leadership practices in any way. However if you approach the situation of working for a bad boss as an opportunity to learn and grow into a better leader yourself, you may be able to salvage something positive from the experience.

Let’s look at some examples of competencies that you could consciously develop, if you choose to use the experience of working for a bad boss as a learning opportunity:

  • Courage – working with a bad boss can teach you skills in taking an unpopular stand if necessary and championing an idea – being fully prepared for counter-arguments, and being able to put forward a compelling argument.
  • Resilience –The international consulting firm Accenture surveyed over 500 senior executives in 2009- 10 and found that resilience–the ability to overcome challenges and turn them into opportunities –is very important to extremely important in determining those executives they will retain. By the way, these leaders viewed women as slightly more resilient than men.
  • Political savvy – learning where the power lies and how to work behind-the-scenes to make change happen, being able to navigate around opposition, anticipate potential land mines and to manoeuvre through complex  situations effectively
  • Interpersonal savvy – being able to relate to all kinds of people (not just good-natured, likeable people) and to build constructive and effective relationships across an organisation is a key competency of excellent leaders.
  • Emotional maturity – working for a bad boss can test your levels of endurance. Being able to remain unflustered and cool under pressure is a great skill to learn, will be noticed by others and will generate respect from your peers and other managers.

We can sometimes learn more from negative experiences, like having a bad boss, than positive ones. From time to time we need to experience something in the negative to help crystallise our attention on what good practice should be.

In fact, another competence just might be developed in these situations:  that of coaching your boss and converting his or her practices into more constructive ones.  Good leadership can sometimes be developed upwards!

Norah Breekveldt is a Director of Macfarlan Lane.