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My boss is (still) bad


Should we vote for our bosses?

In a follow up to his article examining how our workplaces have been unwittingly designed to mass produce dictator-bosses, Chetan Dhruve provides some answers to the many questions that this idea throws up.

Using the ‘systems thinking’ theory, my previous article showed why we shouldn’t blame individual bosses for bad behaviour – the boss-subordinate relationship is a ‘system’ that makes bad behaviour by bosses almost inevitable. The apparently bizarre ‘cure’ is to have subordinates vote for their bosses. This idea provokes several questions, which I will answer here:

1. Won’t it lead to anarchy?

A ‘free system’ – in which freedom is an emergent property – does not equal anarchy. For example take a system with – and let-s take a really wild number here – about 300 million people. The leaders regularly get thrown out by their people; there are lots of sub-level leaders (who also get regularly thrown out); the leaders are forever squabbling with each other in public; their people are forever criticizing them in public; things happen by consensus; the top job is seemingly won by a popularity contest, and so on. But consider the name of this system – the United States – which also happens to be the world’s most powerful system.

We know that the apparent chaos of freedom disguises very real, tangible and formidable strengths. In comparison, dictatorship ‘fear systems’ are usually weak, uncompetitive and stale.

2. All this talk of freedom sounds very nice. But how do we implement this practically?

Remember that fundamentally, the vote is really an expression of power. In organisations, the boss’s power is typically expressed through the appraisal. This determines the subordinate’s pay, promotion prospects, standing in the organisation and, indeed, the very existence of the subordinate in that organisation (not to mention the ability to pay the mortgage, image in the community, self-confidence, and so on).

Through the appraisal, your boss already ‘votes’ for you – a satisfactory rating or higher is a vote for you to continue, and a rating of not-satisfactory means you’re voted out – dismissed.

Similarly, a boss should have management objectives (such as clearly communicating goals) in relation to the subordinate, and be appraised (with similar consequences) by the subordinate. Depending on the rating, the boss is either voted in or out, though ideally, this vote would be expressed as a real vote. This goes way beyond 360-degree feedback. For more approaches, you could read Ricardo Semler’s book, Maverick. It’s important to understand that whatever the approach, the aim is to counterbalance the boss’s power, such that freedom is an emergent property of the system.

3. Don’t we sometimes need a dictator?

This sounds reasonable, especially when a ‘firm hand’ is needed. But who will get to decide, and at what point, that a dictator is required? The dictator, of course. This can go terribly wrong. In 1986, space shuttle Challenger disintegrated soon after lift-off, killing everyone on board. It turned out that because of freezing weather, the engineers had recommended against launching. But their bosses took an autocratic decision and over-ruled them.

Moreover, when someone says, “a dictator is sometimes needed,” what’s left unsaid is, “and that dictator should be me, or a dictator I approve of”.

4. Won’t it turn into a popularity contest?

This is not really a question but a statement of arrogance that says, “I will vote for the right person, but I don’t trust others to do so”. It also means you think others are not intelligent enough to make the right choice. Consider that someone could think the same of you. Also remember that before women won the right to vote, they were denied this right partly because they were considered to be too emotional and irrational.

5. Won’t it be time-consuming and cumbersome to put every decision to vote?

This confuses consensual decision-making with the definition of leader. It’s not decisions that are being put to a vote. It’s the boss himself/herself.

6. Our people are already empowered. Why do they need the vote?

In this context, empowerment is different from freedom. Subordinates may be empowered to make decisions or do certain things. But why then, are they still afraid of the boss? Because the boss can throw them out anytime, and they don’t have that power over their boss.

7. Isn’t 360-degree feedback good enough?

How much does fear of the boss reduce because of 360-degree feedback? When you give feedback to a person whose position you cannot threaten, and on whom your position depends, it’s not a recipe for freedom. It’s a recipe for lying or, at best, sugarcoating the truth.

8. I already know my boss behaves badly. Why do I need a fancy theory?

Before the theory of gravity came along, people already knew that if you jumped off a roof, you were going to fall down and get hurt. But now that we have a theory of gravity, it helps us in achieving stupendous things – satellite TV, sending human beings to the moon, and so on. As the saying goes: “There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.”

9. I’m truly a nice boss, so obviously the system hasn’t influenced me. Doesn’t that disprove what you’re saying?

The difference in power between boss and subordinate results in a difference in perception. You may be a really nice boss, but to a subordinate, even a request for a simple favour can come across as an order. The system’s influence means that subordinates become subservient so that even if you’re nice, subordinates may not always see it that way. Subservience breeds resentment, and there’s no telling when and how this will manifest itself.

10. What about subordinates who behave badly with bosses?

This happens, but nowhere near as much as we imagine. In his best-selling book, The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Bob Sutton says, “‘upward nastiness’ – where underlings take on their superiors – occurs in less than 1 per cent of cases.”

Finally, if we’re having such a difficult time accepting freedom, imagine the problem dictators and subjects of countries face. Without any exposure to freedom, imagine how insane and fanciful the idea must appear to them.

Chetan Dhruve is the author of ‘Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator’ (published by Cyan/Marshall Cavendish). You can contact him at [email protected] or visit his website at

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7 Responses

  1. Some answers to questions (part 2 of 2)
    (continued from previous posting)

    4. “For instance, imagine a tyrannical “leader” who has majority support of his/her co-workers. Those who support the leader will think they exist in a “free” system. Those who do not may perceive it to be “fear-based.””

    This is valid point. Again, I don’t know the answer. But the attitude we should take is not, “This situation may arise, so we should stick to a dictatorship system.” The attitude we must have is, “This situation may arise. How do we deal with it keeping freedom in mind?” One possible answer is to have an unbiased arbiter – such as an ombudsman – to help resolve things.

    5. “I also know of organizations where subordinates do vote for leaders (usually academic institutions). Not all of these organizations are the paragons of efficiency that could survive a highly-competitive private-sector environment. Leadership requires more than legitimacy to create success.”

    I’d like to make two points here.

    First, on the point of academic institutions not being paragons of efficiency. In part, institutions or organisations are a function of the competitive environments in which they operate. If the academic institutions (where subordinates vote) aren’t as intensely competitive or efficient as the private sector, it’s not the fault of the ‘free system’.

    While academic institutions do compete, they do not have the same drive as the private sector does – they do not have to worry about things like quarterly targets, shareholder pressure or profit maximization. I would guess that if these academic institutions had to compete along the same lines as the private sector, they would quickly become efficient too.

    Second, re the issue of leadership requiring more than legitimacy to create success. In my opinion, leadership is not about legitimacy. Leadership is fundamentally about the emergent property of the system – freedom. If there’s no freedom, what’s the use of legitimacy? The Queen is the legitimate “ruler” of Britain – yet, without freedom, how useful would that legitimacy be?

    Ryan, I would like to thank you once again for taking the time to read, think over and comment on the articles. To me, the very fact that a debate has begun is the surest indication that the seeds of change are being planted.

    (Disclosure – I am the author of the above article)

  2. Some answers to questions (part 1 of 2)
    Ryan, thank you for commenting. (I’m splitting the response into two postings, because of the maximum character limit per posting).

    1. I’ll first address your last point – “I personally just need to see the details of how such a system would work in the real world to accept it outright.”

    Let me state up-front that I do not know the details. We simply do not know how this will pan out in the workplace. In any case, Systems Thinking says that the approach we should use is this – try something, see what works and modify accordingly.

    Until there’s a body of knowledge that we can refer to, we simply won’t know the details in advance. My suggestion is that we should make a start and try something, and take it from there.

    2. “I think my skepticism stems from a perception (in me) that you are over-simplifying organizational structures. The terms “free” and “fear” creates a dichotomy that illustrates your preference of one style over another.”

    In my opinion, while it may sound simplistic, the fundamental question really is of fear or freedom. In fact, it’s a very profound question that urgently needs to be addressed. Moreover, I unreservedly accept that the dichotomy created illustrates my preference of one style over the other. I most definitely prefer freedom to fear.

    3. “It is hard for me to decide whether I live in a “free” or “fear” system. There are elements of both that have reared their heads over the course of my career.”

    Well, you don’t have to decide because by definition we live in a “fear” system (at work), even though we may not sometimes see it that way.

    Perhaps “fear” sounds too strong a word if you live within a fear system – I would hazard a guess that people in fear systems (eg Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Syria or Pakistan) don’t think they live in fear systems either. I’m sure there are times when they feel free too.

    But the fact that subjects feel free at times doesn’t mean that they do not live in fear systems. Also, if people feel free sometimes or even often, does that mean we should stop promoting the idea of a free system in those countries?

    (continued in part 2)

    (Disclosure – I am the author of the above article)

  3. (Checks or Cheques) and Balances


    I think my skepticism stems from a perception (in me) that you are over-simplifying organizational structures. The terms “free” and “fear” creates a dichotomy that illustrates your preference of one style over another.

    Under those circumstances, it is hard for me to decide whether I live in a “free” or “fear” system. There are elements of both that have reared their heads over the course of my career.

    It is also difficult whether your most controversial proposal (leaders voted for by subordinates) is free or fear-based as well. More-over, the style of organization could be difficult to detect under the most risky circumstances. For instance, imagine a tyrannical “leader” who has majority support of his/her co-workers. Those who support the leader will think they exist in a “free” system. Those who do not may perceive it to be “fear-based.”

    On the other hand, many traditional structures will still have boards that elect a chair from members. The overall labor market will provide some power to “vote” by choosing their employers rather than the other way around. “Bosses” that cannot keep their employees are not apt to be able to keep their positions for long. On the other side of the coin, shareholders will not “vote” to invest in a company if they believe employees have too much influence over the running of the company.

    I also know of organizations where subordinates do vote for leaders (usually academic institutions). Not all of these organizations are the paragons of efficiency that could survive a highly-competitive private-sector environment. Leadership requires more than legitimacy to create success.

    Again, this is not to reject the theory as bad on the whole — I personally just need to see the details of how such a system would work in the real world to accept it outright.

  4. Imperfection of voting/need for checks and balances
    Ryan, thank you for making the points that democracies (ie free systems) have flaws, and that checks and balances are essential.

    I completely agree with you on both counts. Free systems definitely have flaws. We, who live in free systems (I’m sure that includes you), never claim our systems are perfect. Far from it – we’re continually bemoaning the fact that the free system is imperfect.

    Having said that, fundamentally, freedom remains the foundation on which everything else rests. If freedom doesn’t appear to be working, we don’t get rid of freedom – we don’t call for a dictator just because something has ‘failed’. We keep monitoring and tweaking the system, such that we’re continually trying to root out the imperfections. The system has to keep responding to changing circumstances and as such, it’s a never-ending process.

    Systems Thinking cautions against saying there is a perfect, final, neat ‘solution’. Instead, Systems Thinking says: there are consequences, and consequences of those consequences, and so on. We have to keep working at things to get the outcomes we want. In fact this is what happens every single day in our free systems. Issues are debated, discussed and acted upon, and if things don’t work, we change or at least try to change.

    And needless to say, you are spot-on when you say checks and balances are essential. In free systems, we have checks and balances in place to ensure our leaders cannot turn into power-crazed monsters. We’ll need to have similar checks at the workplace. Under our current (fear) systems, bosses are dictators without checks and balances. Is it any wonder that so many bosses run amok, and so many people hate their bosses?

    (Disclosure: I’m the author of the article).

  5. Bad bosses – why stay?
    I loved this entry for its rather counter-cultural thoughts, but it left me puzzled too.

    Why stay working for a ‘bad boss’, however perceived?

    This article suggested to me a sense of ‘victim-hood’, which is not a healthy state of mind to be recommended to anyone.

    Some come born to this view-point, we all know; some acquire it later on; but no-one pre-ordained it.

    ‘Fight or flight’ seem to be popular strategies in defending against such a seemingly unfair world, but there is another option of adult ‘change within’, where there are no ‘victims’, ‘persecutors’ or even ‘rescuers’.

    It seems to me self-evident that no-one ‘commanded’ bosses to be bosses, any more than no-one ‘commanded’ their subordinates to be such. It was only their subordinates who allowed this, and indeed their bosses’ bosses to permit it.

    So if a boss wasn’t to your liking, I’d suggest you have a duty to challenge this. Not just for yourself but for others – at any level – and to your organisation.

    Your boss may be ‘wrong’ (but worth defining what you mean by this); even the organisation may be ‘wrong’ (so say so, and get out if this isn’t resolved to your satisfaction); but do please entertain the possibilty that *you* were ‘wrong’?

    I know what it is like to work for a ‘wrong organisation’, at first hand. I also have family members who say they are ‘trapped’ by working for the ‘wrong organisation’. They may be under-paid, they may be under-valued, they may even be under-developed. But nobody ‘made’ them work in such circumstances.

    As an apparent ‘minion’ in a vast organisation, no doubt there will be a sense of futility and even meaningless when our personal aspirations are dashed and we don’t feel listened to? We may think we know what ought to be done, we may even know it? And we may well be right.

    So maybe our ‘boss’ (or the ‘organisation) was wrong after all?

    But if we can’t change that perception, why stay?

    Frankly, I see many organisations who lose their best when downsizing, leaving the less competent who remain. This article couldn’t possibly have been addressed to them, by any chance, could it?


  6. The Imperfection of Voting
    Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem identifies at least one flaw with a democratic-style workplace. We can vote for our bosses, but the vote will not account for the intensity we prefer one candidate over the other. For instance, a boss could lobby on a platform of higher wages for some departments at the expense of others. The system could degrade — not into anarchy or a popularity contest, but a kind of mobism, which isn’t really that great for business in the end. I don’t think we need to be reminded that some pretty nasty dictators have come out of democratic systems before, and will again.

    Jane Jacob’s _Systems of Survival_ deserves a mention here.

    That’s not an absolute no against the system — just a reminder that checks and balances are still essential.

  7. I gotta mean a…ed boss man I got de workplace blooze
    Chetan makes some extremely valuable points in this short and easy to read article. I think we have all but forgotten the idea that sometimes we need someone who tells it like it is in the UK. Benevlovent Dictatorship can be better than Consultative Meltdown, which bedevils many organisations at this time.

    Thinking about Chetan’s paper made me think (naturally) about the blues in music. Whereas you CAN have:

    ‘Woke up this morning, the levee was dry …’ and so on in the blues, you CANNOT have:

    ‘Woke up this morning, the server was down, my leader has organised yet another focus group to help us feel more committed to a high performance workplace where trust and talent management are key leadership imperatives, so I got the leadership blues’

    For one thing, it does not scan! :-))

    The other big issue which I hope to hear more on is that of leadership popularity versus effectiveness which Chetan opens up in this article.

    The book looks very interesting – thanks

    Peter Cook

    Author – ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ – A no- bulls..t guide to leadership, creativity, innovation and change

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