The Value of Working for a Bad Boss

I’ve had more than twenty bosses in my career. I worked well with nearly all of them. But surprisingly, I learned the most from the worst ones.

A Manager Arguing with a Subordinate - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #18676911

Photo courtesy of ©

The truth is that most of my supervisors were average. Sadly, I really can’t remember much about them.

One was exceptional and became a role model. He took responsibility when things went badly. He gave others credit when things went well. He exuded integrity and became a close friend.

One boss was just plain incompetent. He was a nice guy but burned up and checked out. He couldn’t seem to do anything right. I think he retired mentally two years before the company let his body go. I was embarrassed to tell anyone I worked for him.

Two others were downright sinister if not evil. These were the bad bosses.

They could be kind and charming one minute and then—an hour later—mean, paranoid, and vindictive. Though I tried hard to stay out of the line-of-fire, they both skewered me on a few occasions.

Though I hated working for them at the time, I wouldn’t trade what I learned for anything.

Reality is that you don’t usually get to choose your boss. Sure, you can quit. But most bosses aren’t so bad that you would actually leave the company over them.

They are more like a low-grade headache. You learn to live with them. Besides, if you quit, you’ll miss some important lessons that will help you become a better leader.

Here are twenty random lessons I learned from bad bosses.

  1. Everyone on the team matters. No one deserves to be treated poorly.
  2. Bosses create an emotional climate with their attitudes and behaviors.
  3. The higher up you are, the more people “read into” everything you say and do. Stuff gets amplified as it moves downstream.
  4. A word of encouragement can literally make someone’s week. Conversely, a harsh word can ruin it.
  5. Hire the right people then trust them to do their job.
  6. Don’t ever intentionally embarrass people in front of their boss, their peers, or their direct reports.
  7. Don’t attack people personally. Instead, focus on their performance.
  8. Get both sides of the story before you take action.
  9. Tell the truth; then you don’t have to remember what you said.
  10. Give people room to fail and don’t rub their noses in it when they do.
  11. Be quick to forgive and give the benefit of the doubt.
  12. Measure twice, cut once.
  13. Don’t ever ask your people to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.
  14. Respect other people’s time, especially those under you.
  15. Don’t believe all the nice things people say about you.
  16. Follow-through on your commitments, even when it is inconvenient or expensive.
  17. Don’t be ambitious to get promoted. Instead, focus on serving and doing a great job.
  18. Be responsive to everyone at every level. You never know who may be your next boss.
  19. Keep confidences. Make no exceptions.
  20. Do not complain about your boss to anyone who is not part of the solution. If you can’t keep from complaining, then have the integrity to quit.

You can learn from anyone. If you don’t work for a great leader, don’t despair. Some of the lessons that impact you the most will come from the leaders who impressed you the least.

Question: What lessons have you learned from a bad boss or leader? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Lana

    Hi Michael…asking a perspective from you. I reached here looking for articles on bad bosses. My boss on the surface shows a lot of compassion on the personal front but is very cold and nasty when it comes to work-a blow hot blow cold personality.. She rarely ever gives me decent work for what I am trained to do but extra stuff that she finds bothersome to do. I have colleagues who feel bad for me and say she wouldn’t dare give me these things to do. This is a customer service job so I basically don’t have to do “her” stuff  but I am fairly new here. If I do get a phone call that I would process work from she double checks it and loudly brings forth all that she thinks are errors and everyone gets to hear of them. It’s almost like she enjoys demoralizing me..I have even shown her that others do the same errors but why are only mine picked upon. she just tells me o k I’ll let them know.  I am by nature very polite and quiet..most in my office are loud and outspoken.I dread going there and am withdrawing even more. I’ve always had fantastic bosses but I need this job only because it saves money for after care for my son. It’s part-time and pays decent, of late she has asked me drop brochures off at different offices while I am happy to be out of office that is just not what my job profile is. I don’t know if I will find something with these timings at the same time although desperate I can’t quit and stay at home. 

    • Michael Hyatt

      What would you do if you were brave?

      • Lana

        If I were brave I’d leave because I have tried confronting her and she has always rushed through a meeting and it’s then the same behavior again…also because we really don’t have any private offices it is an open office floor. A little printer room is where we can talk. I need a miracle right now an alternate job with similar timings or virtual. The way the job situation is today leaving without another job is what I am more afraid of and I guess my boss knows that too.

  • Sudhir Suvarna

    I am as good as my manager

  • Emil Radkov

    I have left the job because there were relatives staffs ………….

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  • mastedon2

    My boss is a sole proprietor who has figured out that no common marketplace situation in terms of valuing skills or qualifications have to be supported. He has turned this company into bizarro world, never any reviews, promotes people who have talents that he can get his personal agendas met with (i.e. shop guy turns operations manager at 68K/yr, because he can work on classic cars, and the owner has several. This guy now spends 40% of company time working on those cars.
    After 17yrs here, under this new owner, my career is dead in the water now. He knows nothing about computers, so when I rebuild his server to get eight people up and running again, I dont even get a thanks. Did I mention that I was hired for engineering drafting and design? yeah, thats how bad it is.

    • mastedon2

      He did away with an HR dept. Incidently, he let his shop guy turned operations manager be his defensive line against all us underlings trying to “pick his pockets for nothing”..
      This is the absolute worst situation, when you work for a guy that does not know what you do, nor does he care what you do, because it would mean a higher salary if he validated it. It gets to a point that you are being economically controlled, and almost NEED to work there, especially in an economy like this horrible one under obama.

  • desperate life

    Having a really bad incompetent boss & an irresponsible , controlling etc husband is personal suicide. No physical separation can free me totally of the latter but I am getting the hell away from the former. its not worth anyones mental health!

  • Cynthia

    I’m learning that I should not complain about my boss. She’s very vindictive and evil. She always comes to me later an apologize and cry crocodile tears and explain to me that she has a lot going on in her life. So I don’t want to miss an opportunity to demonstrate God’s love.she always ask me to not tell anyone. I think of what they did to Jesus. So keep me and my boss in your prayers. She is 70y/o and I am 61y/o and I need my job. Thank you for listening.

  • mastedon2

    I handle IT for twelve very out dated and out moded users. None show any proficiency with a computer outside of turning it on, and calling me when something doesnt go normally.
    I also handle the engineering and design work for this and two sister companies overseas. This was what I was initially hired to do. My boss, a “sole proprietor” has conveniently done away with annual reviews completely. That way he can decide what a job is worth, and if you want more pay, you have to go into his office and sell yourself again. He promoted one shop production worker to operations manager, and now that guy has a super-narcissistic ego, and knows everything about everything. He is given audience by the owner to dismiss the value of my job functions, though he knows absolutely nothing about any of it. But it meets the fiscal needs of the owner, by having a parrot to deny value when it is to be denied.
    You guys dont know shit about a bad boss.

  • Saffy

    My boss is totally uneducated and slept her way to the top, she a real saddo with a crap personal life. I’ve learnt nothing from her except not to be anything like her. But that is just so negative. Luckily I now have access to the big boss and I’m going to impress him by doing good work and being so perfect. I think this is beginning to work, its a long term strategy, although I do think its sad i am going to work to play games but she started it, she can reap what she sows.

  • NaN

    Excellent but too short article. I have learned the most from the bad ones–thanks for pointing that out. I too think more managers (who need to earn the title of leader) need to hire well, then trust. Time after time people are hired for their talents, then immediately have their professional experience-based opinions ignored in favor of those of less experienced employees based upon personal friendships and worse.
    What I’ve learned very well is that manager != leader

  • Jacksaid

    I learned that I hated them and was glad when they were transferred out.