Everyone has had one at some point in their lives. Perhaps it was a college kid home for the summer who assigned you the worst lifeguard shifts at the pool, or a team leader who forced you to remain late on Christmas Eve and then claimed credit for your efforts. If you’ve ever worked a 9-to-5, chances are you’ve met one of the world’s Bill Lumbergs, Miranda Priestly’s, or Michael Scotts, the archetypal awful bosses who range from absolutely terrifying to sadly inept.
There are quite a few of them. According to research provided to the American Psychological Association by psychologist and leadership expert Robert Hogan, 75 percent of employees say their immediate boss is the worst part of their job.
Working is a natural topic of conversation for me as a 20-something navigating the early phases of my career—my friends are all in a similar postgraduate, pre-white picket fence stage of life when we spend the majority of our time and energy on our employment.
Most of us have met that boss at some point. The bully, the scapegoat, the manipulator, and so on. We tell war stories over happy hours, backyard barbecues, and, if necessary, over an international phone conversation.
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If you’re one of the fortunate few who has only had bosses who encourage you to take long lunches and live your best life, keep knocking on wood and doing whatever it is that has earned you such good karma.
I’m fortunate. My anecdotes are well-practiced at this point, recounted with a lightness that only comes with experience, enough to take the sting out of even the most painful experiences.
They mostly center on my first job out of college, a “sink or swim” circumstance in which my boss’s management style was terrible at best and unprofessional at worst, and which still causes me self-doubt years later.
I found myself referring to that particular incident in terms of “teachable moments” during a grad school interview in an effort to appear charmingly diplomatic, a buzzy phrase I’d never used before in my life that suddenly made a lot of sense.
I’ve come to appreciate the concept of the silver lining, and while I only say it out loud with a fair dose of irony, it makes me feel a little less like losing it when things aren’t going my way.
I keep the self-help lingo to myself in an equally heroic effort not to be the friend shouting about “teachable moments” while they’re supposed to be commiserating and getting the bartender to fetch another round.
Even if it isn’t said explicitly, the majority of my friends’ and coworkers’ stories end with the same conclusion: I never want to be that person. A terrible employer can teach just as much, if not more, as a good one in these situations…
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1) Avoiding Accountability
My boss’s lack of interpersonal communication skills and mastery of passive aggression rendered her unfit for a communications professional.
She avoided all sorts of connections with her colleagues on a regular basis, locking herself away in her office and only spoke to them during meetings. When she did pay attention to someone, it was usually to criticize and patronize one coworker in particular, whom she blamed for her own errors.
Learning point in time: If you don’t want to be there or aren’t engaged in being a strong leader, your team will notice. A healthy, collaboration is always more effective than isolation or disdain when it comes to leadership and maximizing the ability of your team.
2) A Leadership Gap
My boss’s lack of interest in my ideas and work convinced me that I needed to take control of my life. On paper, he could be the boss, but I had to take charge of planning my projects, setting deadlines, and sticking to them.
Teachable moment: Some bosses don’t care about management, therefore you’ll have to learn to manage yourself. This occasionally necessitates some degree of management.
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3) Placing the Blame on Others
My boss would purposely send altered email summaries of conversations in order to deflect any accountability for office problems. My coworkers and I began recording talks ourselves, and we eventually had to deal with the matter directly with the manager’s boss.
Teachable moment: Thorough documentation can save your job (I maintain all correspondence, including messages, in structured files), and if the situation warrants it, consider approaching top management for assistance.
4) Favorite Playing
One of my first managers and I got along swimmingly, and I was definitely one of her favorites. We’d have lengthy lunches, she wouldn’t mind if I left early, and she’d share inappropriate office gossip with me.
The blatant favoritism on the squad produced tension between her “favorites” and those who weren’t treated equally.
Teachable moment: Within my team, I may have preferences, but I’m more discreet. I understand that there will be people with whom I like to collaborate and engage. But I try not to let it affect my judgments, assessments, or daily actions.
5) Ignoring Criticism
My manager was like a close friend to me for the first year. I enjoyed going to work until I was promoted to a managerial role, which did not come easy to me, and for the first time in my life, I felt unsuccessful.
Our friendship ended the moment I asked for formal training—she told me I didn’t need it and that every manager at the company learned by “doing.” I felt disregarded and undervalued, and I lost faith in her.
Teachable moment: That was a particularly lonely moment for me, and I never want any of my teammates to go through it. I strive hard to keep myself accountable to my team’s comments and to provide as much enrichment as possible—I believe that the best sense of validation comes from being truly heard.