Recognise This! – Reforming horrible bosses relies on focussing on feedback skills, both positive and negative.

Do you work for a horrible boss? Have you ever?

Some of my favorite email feeds are from SmartBrief. In short, easy-to-read snippets, I can skim through the latest news, blogs and commentary on topics relevant to leadership, executives, technology and management. A recent SmartBrief on Leadership email included the results illustrated below on a SmartPulse survey:

Poll results showing 59% of people have horrible bosses.

Commentary from Mike Figliuolo on SmartPulse about the results addresses the obvious and most pressing point about what to do if you work for a “horrible boss”:

“Too many horrible bosses. These are pretty surprising and disappointing results. When about 58% of you are saying horrible bosses are not only tolerated but that it’s a way to get ahead, it’s a sad state of affairs. So you have three choices here: quit, suck it up or try to change it. The first two are pretty bad options. So ask yourself how you can provide feedback to that individual, help “lead up” by coaching them and see what other channels there are to help rectify the behaviour. It will never get better until you try to do something about it.”

I’m a bit more interested in two other questions:

1. What exactly is a horrible boss?

I prefer direct feedback. If you don’t like something I’ve produced or the way in which I’ve delivered it, then tell me. Others prefer a softer approach – highlight what I do well, then help me understand where I can improve and how to get there. (Read this terrific article on how these preferences get lost in translation across cultures.)

I also don’t need a lot of direct supervision. I know the work that needs to get done and a pretty good idea of how to accomplish it. Others, however, prefer a more collaborative/coaching style of management (which I might interpret as micromanaging).

My point is, your definition of “horrible boss” might be quite different from my own. And that’s the challenge with answering the next question…

2. Why are “horrible bosses” tolerated in an organisation?

Of course, bully bosses need to be exited. But bullying behaviour is not the same as being demanding under tight timelines, or focussed on quality deliverables. It can sometimes be difficult to separate the truly “horrible” boss from one whose leadership and management style is a poor fit for a subordinate.

Reforming Horrible Bosses

This is what makes “addressing their performance issues” (to quote the survey) of horrible bosses a true challenge. How do you define what is a true managerial performance issue vs. a difference in style? First and foremost, a clear set of non-negotiable managerial skills must be established:

  1. Ability to give negative feedback in a constructive and helpful way. (Regardless of cultural style, we all need to know when, where and how we can improve.)
  2. Ability to give positive praise and recognition in an equally constructive and helpful way. (Again, regardless of cultural style, detailed messages of appreciation communicate more than gratitude. They tell us what elements of our work are particularly valuable, how our efforts impact the success of others, and why we should want to repeat those actions or behaviours again and again.)

That’s it. Just those two things. What about goal setting? Or motivating? Or disciplinary actions? Or performance management? All of these fall out of the above two skills when handled well, consistently and on regular, ongoing basis.

Tell me about a horrible boss you’ve worked for. What made them “horrible?” How could they have improved?