Learning from the worst boss ever
I’m a firm believer that we can learn as much from the negative influences in our lives as we can from the positive because it’s those negative experiences that make the impact of those behaviors real for us. It’s not theoretical. It’s not something we read in Harvard Business Review. When we experience the impact of their negative behaviors on our own professional lives, those are experiences that have a powerful impact on how we approach others and informs what types of people (managers, leaders, etc..) that we want to be.
So in that spirit, I’m going to tell you the story of the worst boss I ever had…and what I learned. First, let’s learn about her.
She’s was a micromanager extraordinaire.
When I took the job, I told her I was looking for two things in a boss – one that would help get obstacles out of my way, and that I would not work for a micromanager. Of course, she agreed cheerfully – “of course, you’re going to have autonomy and be empowered” – but from the moment I started the job, exactly the opposite was true. At first, I just chalked it up to being the new guy, but as it continued three, six, nine months into the job, it became clear that this was not something that was going to change.
In time, it became clear that she had no interest in empowering me – every time I tried to express an idea to others in the organization, she shut it down immediately without discussion. Every bit of every piece of work that I did was nit-picked and ripped apart by her, down to the smallest detail, based entirely on her personal preference rather than based on best practice or what the data was telling us to do. So instead of being an independent, empowered employee, she wanted me to be an order-taker from her and from others in the organization. As soon as I resigned myself to that, I was rewarded through raises – two within a year – showing that she valued that type of submission.
She set employees up for failure.
Communication from her was basically non-existent, not just with me but with her team, and with other members of the organization. Each of my one-on-one meetings would open with a line from her to the effect of “I don’t have anything to tell you.” Team meetings would be an endless recitation of everyone’s list with no real update about what was going on in the organization. And in larger meetings with the organization, she remained quiet most of the time, apart from discussing things that were directly relevant to what she was doing at the time. All of this resulted in her employees being the dark most of the time on most issues. They weren’t really connected with each other, they weren’t really connected with the organization, and the organization had no idea what they were doing day-to-day, leading to suspicion and gossip from those working in other departments. And decisions large and small were made in a complete vacuum, with no conversation or explanation ever being offered. So at the end of the day, her staff didn’t have the information they needed to do their job, didn’t have the resources they needed to do their job, and didn’t have the organizational support to do it in what was already a very hierarchical organization to begin with.
She lied and manipulated.
I’ve met my fair share of manipulators in my day, but this particular boss had them all beat by a mile. She would say anything she needed to to please the person she was talking to at the time, but rarely had any intention of doing anything other than exactly what she wanted to do. When she got called out on it, it was always someone else’s fault…or there was a story about why it happened a different way…or, oh shoot, she’s just so busy and it slipped her mind. I caught her red handed multiple times, but the one that stands out the most is when she was trying to sabotage me (yes, you read that correctly), I got called into HR one day and received a reprimand for something that never happened. Not something that was misconstrued or misinterpreted or anything type of misunderstanding…this was something that was fictionalized. Note to managers – trust from your team is critical. When you falsely report them to HR for things they didn’t do, you don’t help your cause.
She sought to place blame, rather than empower.
The thing that probably bothered me the most about her was that, instead of focusing on the massive opportunities in front of her and her team, she spent an ungodly amount of energy maneuvering politically within the organization, and instead of trying to build the people around her up through empowerment, she only tried to tear them down. When I finally left, all I could think of was the amount of hours this woman dedicated to beating me down, and wondered how much more I could have achieved if she had used that energy to support me instead.
So, what did I learn from the worst boss I ever had?
First, I think it’s necessary to put aside the blatant sabotage, lying and manipulation, which just puts my former boss in a special category of evil. The vast majority of bosses don’t stoop that low – their mistakes with their team aren’t the results of intentional sabotage. At the end of the day, I decided to channel my experience into something positive. My boss didn’t adapt to the things I said I needed in a manager before I accepted the job…she didn’t communicate…she didn’t empower her staff…and she sure as heck didn’t support us for follow through on her commitments. And it was when I was working for her, that I created my Mindful Management Framework with exactly those principles – Adapt, Communicate, Empower Support. She was a perfect example of everything I believe a manager should never do and helped me solidify my ideal of what a manager should be.
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