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We’ve all had one, or at least sympathised with an exasperated friend over that nightmare boss who makes going to work a daily chore – if not an absolute living hell.
A boss behaving badly is easy to spot. They may micromanage your every move, take credit for your ideas, set the whole office on edge or have little regard for your life outside work.
Left unchecked, bad boss behaviour can turn a workplace toxic and leave employees stressed out, sick, demotivated or suffering low self-esteem. At their worst, a horrible boss may simply inspire a stampede out the closest door.
Research by the University of Manchester’s Business School, involving 1200 people across a variety of industries and countries, looked into the impact of working with a boss who shows psychopathic or narcissistic traits.
Such employees not only generally felt more depressed due to their boss’ bullying behaviour, but were also more likely to engage in undesirable behaviours at work, the 2017 study found.
‘Those (bosses) high in psychopathy and narcissism have a strong desire for power and often lack empathy,’ says lead researcher Abigail Phillips.
‘This toxic combination can result in these individuals taking advantage of others, taking credit for their work, being overly critical, and generally behaving aggressively.’
James Buzzard, a manager at KPMG who graduated with a Deakin MBA, tells the story of a friend at another firm who had a horror boss.
That friend had applied for leave, received approval and paid for a trip away with their partner.
‘About three days before the trip was scheduled, they received a call from their boss saying a situation had come up that required them to stay, and that she was cancelling their leave,’ Buzzard says.
‘There was no offer of compensation or restitution, and the employee was told that if they did not stay, that they would likely be dealt with in some manner.’
Buzzard said the friend was forced to cancel the trip, and lost several thousand dollars in the process.
Dr Andrea Howell, an associate lecturer in management at Deakin’s Business School, says in some cases, managers can abuse their power.
‘That’s where you get a boss that gets promoted in a position and the power differential seems to go to their heads. That might make it very uncomfortable or difficult for their staff,’ Dr Howell says. ‘They get to be coercive: ‘’unless you do this for me, I won’t promote you or give you that shift”.’
‘A bad manager may view you simply as ‘a cog in the wheel’, Dr Howell says.
They might also stretch you to your absolute limits by demanding 12-hour days, for instance, or by constantly shifting the goalposts.
Of course in some cases they might simply be making your own life miserable in the hope of covering up their own weaknesses, Dr Howell says.
'A bad manager may view you simply as "a cog in the wheel".'
Dr Andrea Howell,
Deakin Business School
So if you’re stuck with a bad boss, what can you do?
‘If you understand that maybe they’ve just had a lack of experience – perhaps they’ve been newly promoted into the job – you might give them some feedback in the next performance review,’ Dr Howell suggests.
Depending on the situation, you could go to the manager above them, or just raise your complaints directly with your boss. The other obvious options are to find a new job, tolerate the behaviour or issue a formal complaint.
On the flipside, if you hope to be promoted into a managerial position, or you’re already in the hot seat, how can you avoid becoming a bad boss yourself?
‘Take a genuine interest in the welfare of your staff – don’t see them as pawns to shuffle around the organisational chessboard,’ Dr Howell says.
‘Know their names, know their history and know what motivates them. You genuinely want them to be the best they can be.’
If you say you’re going to do something, stick to it, she says. Other signs of a good boss are the ability to listen to staff and being fair and reasonable when it comes to solving conflict.
If you’re suddenly promoted above your former peers and friends, you’ll have to learn to put those friendships aside during work hours, Dr Howell says.
Meanwhile, Buzzard has this advice:
‘Try to make each employee, whether new or not, have a better experience of the organisation than they would have a year ago,’ he says. ‘What this means, in reality, is managers and leaders need to stop thinking that employees need to have the same experience as they have to be able to get to where they are.
‘It is a pet hatred of mine when I see someone having a rough time and another person, usually more senior, says something along the lines of ‘when I was in that position, I got flogged too’.
Want to become the best manager you can be? Find out more about studying an MBA at Deakin.
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