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Good Boss, Bad Boss
By Tom Dennis –
President, Effective Engineering
your career, you will undoubtedly have numerous bosses. Some will be good,
some will be bad. Very few will be outstanding, and hopefully, very few will
be outstandingly bad. I will discuss the characteristics that you should
look for in a good boss, and those to look out for in a
Early in my career at Bell Labs, lo those many years ago, I had the
tremendous privilege of having the best boss I’ve ever had, John Sheehan.
John was a strong manager with an outlook that has stuck with me throughout
my life. His governing philosophy was,
“Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do!”
See the link for more. I’ve tried to emulate his approach throughout my
career, generally to very positive effect.
Shortly after working for John, I had the misfortune of working for the
worst boss I’ve ever had, who I won’t name. This boss was a petty tyrant,
mean, spiteful, vindictive, credit stealing (see
Stolen Credit - It’s Not Just About Credit Cards!), and overall a
terrible boss. I’m actually grateful for having had the experience (despite
the living hell of working through it). It demonstrated so forcefully what I
would strive to never become, particularly after working for John, who
showed so positively what I absolutely wanted to become. This bad boss set a
negative example so bad, that all my other bosses, and many other assorted
managers I’ve known, all showed much better characteristics than this one
bad boss ever did (see
Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!).
Overall, the learning experience of working with such a variety of bosses
and boss types has been truly educating, helping to learn what works, what
doesn’t, what to emulate and expand on, what to reject and avoid, and how to
be as effective as possible in doing your own work and in helping to
successfully direct the efforts of others. What follows are some thoughts on
the characteristics of good bosses and what they can do to improve the lives
of their employees, and what bad bosses can look like and how they undermine
the work of their employees
Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well).
A good boss
shows leadership by
example, and helps his/her employees learn about leadership, whether
that is leadership of a subgroup, of a project, of a specific effort,
showing leadership in meetings, or any of a wide variety of other leadership
Leadership Is Not Just for “Leaders”, and
Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way).
A bad boss tends to ignore
his/her employees, except when they’re really needed, and generally provides
little in the way of useful guidance or true leadership. He/she also tends
to use his/her employees as pawns to blame for problems for which the bad
boss is actually responsible.
A good boss gives his/her
employees clear expectations on what they’re expected to do, and on
how they can best accomplish it. He/she doesn’t do the job for them, doesn’t
spoon feed them every step of the way, and doesn’t think for them. He/she
just lets them know what is expected of them, and how they can best
accomplish what is expected. If employees come back with questions or
concerns, a good boss answers and guides them, again, without doing the work
for them (see
Hire Adults, Expect Results!).
typically gives vague descriptions of the job and avoids getting further
involved, often discouraging further interaction. This makes it easier for a
bad boss to place blame (see
A good boss
provides his/her employees
with meaningful objectives, with goals and targets to shoot for that
capture the importance and value of the work they are about to pursue, and
that make their work understandable. Such goals and targets should be
concrete, achievable, and actually fun to shoot for. They should tie
together the context of the work of multiple people, bringing out
competitiveness in a positive, enjoyable, and professional fashion, rather
than in a dreary, repetitive, breaking rocks, just doing work for work’s
sake kind of way (see
Promises and Delivery).
A bad boss gives his/her
employees work assignments, but without specific or meaningful objectives,
goals, or targets to achieve. They are assigned work, but without context or
meaning, making it difficult for them to succeed, or effectively work
Sense of purpose:
A good boss
provides his/her employees
with a true sense of purpose, an understanding of the common goal of
their work, and a reason for them to work closely together to achieve that
goal in a way that builds a true esprit de corps (see
Pigasus, When Pigs Fly!). When a good boss provides such an
exciting common sense of purpose, it can make people really look forward to
coming to work every day!
A bad boss may describe the
basic job, but fails to let the employees understand the opportunities that
can make the job exciting and enjoyable, or the best ways to approach it.
He/she thus turns what could be a truly inspiring opportunity into just
another dreary job.
A good boss provides his/her
employees with high degrees of autonomy and independence. He/she
allows his/her employees to make their assignments truly theirs, as most
people care more when they’re in charge, empowered, and in control. Such
freedom encourages innovation, and finding new ways for them to accomplish
what needs to be done in the ways that work best for the individual
A bad boss micromanages and
oversees every detail, giving their employees little freedom to do the job
their way or to show their unique flair and ingenuity.
in public; Criticize in private:
A good boss knows that every
employee does some things well, even a relatively poor performer, and that
when an employee does something very well, it should receive praise and
appreciation. Such praise should be given in public (as well as in private),
so that others learn that good work is recognized for others to see. At the
same time, when an employee does something wrong or badly, it is necessary
for that person to get constructive criticism letting him/her know what was
Everyone Does NOT Deserve A Trophy!). However, such criticism should
be given in private, to avoid public embarrassment, and the stigma that
could come with it.
A bad boss is stingy with
praise, if he/she gives it at all, and very public with criticism, often
enjoying making a spectacle out of some real or imagined instance of poor
Embarrassment Rules the World?). This makes working for a bad
boss even more deplorable.
A good boss is consistent in
his/her interactions with all employees, treating every person fairly and
consistently. Since every person is different and their assignments are
different, the interactions with every person may be different, but the
treatment should be consistent and fair. Open and honest communication is
key to such consistency, particularly when keeping people informed about
decision making and how it affects them.
A bad boss is often very
inconsistent, treating different employees differently, showing favoritism,
telling different employees different things about the same actions, etc.
Such inconsistent behavior breeds discontent and contempt for the boss, and
is destructive to both the boss and his/her employees (see
Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!).
Clearly, there are many other good/bad boss differentiators. For
example: encourages/doubts, listens/ignores,
trusts/mistrusts, humble/arrogant, communicates/secretive,
empathetic/self-centered, even tempered/bad tempered,
decisive/indecisive, sense-of-humor/bad-humor, etc. I invite you
to send me more examples. Regardless of the specifics, a good boss can make
your work life an enjoyable experience that you look forward to every day,
and a bad boss can make your work life a living hell that you dread going
If you’ve got a bad boss, do what you can to change that, either by finding
ways to change your bad boss into a good boss, or by getting moved to a
good boss. This information may help you learn better what to
look for. Life is too short to spend most of your time working for a
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