10 things that make you a bad boss - even if you think you are a good one

FROM THE ARCHIVE: You may be in charge, but are you really the model leader that you see in your mind's eye? Here are the telltale signs that your management style needs a makeover.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

This feature was originally published in June 2016.


Availability is much trickier than it used to be. The days when it was enough for the boss to grandly state 'my door is always open' before retiring to their private office confident they would not be disturbed, are but a distant memory.

In the 21st-century gig economy only the C-suite suits have their own offices. Besides, an open door policy isn't much use when your team are either at home, freeworking in the local co-space or queasily emailing from the back seat of an Uber en route to the airport.

Availability is now a cross-platform concept, and coping with it is a challenge for the modern boss. Being in charge has always been about communication, communication, communication - and now you have to master the art of doing it in about 15 different ways. Email is so last century, what about Slack, Blend, Prezi, Google Hangouts? Not to mention YouTube, Twitter and Vine. Don't get left out of the conversation.

But in the end, Keep It Simple still has much to recommend it. Take them out for a coffee or a beer, and see what's on their mind. Less open door, more open bar.


It won't win you many prizes for originality, but praising your team (or members thereof) for a job well done is one of the quickest, most effective and most frequently overlooked items in the performance enhancement toolbox.

So why don't more bosses do it, more often? Perhaps because it feels awkward, like they are praising themselves, or more likely because it's simply what they learned from their own 'harsh but fair' leadership role models on the way up the greasy pole. But times change and today's self-absorbed millennials won't hesitate to tweet, and tell all their Facebook friends, if you aren't giving them enough pats on the head.

Apologising can also be good boss behaviour and do wonders for perceptions of your EQ and authenticity. Being - or at least appearing - confident enough to admit the occasional small failing in public can make even the most hard-nosed appear more human to their underlings.

But be careful, sorry works much better directed down rather than up. Your team will appreciate the odd mea culpa, your boss would prefer a solution over the most heartfelt apology. And unlike thanks, it's easy to overdo it - regular apologies just make you look incompetent.


This may seem like a trivial thing, but good teams know and trust one another, so a good skipper should take an interest in what makes the crew tick, on and off duty. What sports do they follow, are they foodies, pet-lovers, family types?

Some caveats - don't let interest tip over into nosiness, lest you be accused of Alex Ferguson style control-freakery (the former Man Utd super manager wasn't even keen on 'letting' his young stars have girlfriends). And be even-handed - don't favour someone just because they're also an opera buff, and try not to snigger when that great new hire turns out to be a massive Ultimate Frisbee fan.

It's small stuff but it matters. Everyone responds to the human touch, so not every conversation you have with your team should be entirely job-related. (The same principle applies to your boss, too - do you know what their interests are?)

In return, you'll have to share a few of your downtime options to get the ball rolling. Not only will you learn a little bit more about your team members, they will also learn a little bit more about you. And that can only be a good thing.


Otherwise known as the 'Just Fucking Do It' school of management. Oh dear - you really are a bit of a dinosaur aren't you? This kind of command and control even raises eyebrows in the military (which given that they invented it in the first place is surely proof of usefulness outlived).

Thankfully, the Age of Deference is but a historical curiosity to 95% of the UK's contemporary workforce; however grand your job title, people simply will not do as they are told any more. Instead you need to convince your team that what you want them to do is in their own interests (as well as yours, obvs). Softly, softly not strong-arm tactics. This is much harder work of course, but the results can be spectacular. There is nothing like a sense of enlightened self-interest to get engagement and productivity levels soaring.

So next time you feel a JFDI moment coming on, stop, count to 10 and figure out how you can turn your pressing problem into their unmissable opportunity. In 2018, it's much smarter to outthink someone than to outrank them.


If there's one thing that new bosses are told, it's that they have to listen - no one likes to feel ignored after all, and the best way to avoid that is to give everyone a fair hearing.

Not only is it good for team harmony, listening is also a key skill for other important reasons. Bad listeners tend to make bad choices, and listening is also good for boosting self-awareness (see point 10). Listening more than you talk is also a great way of dipping your cup into the murky but information-packed pool of office gossip, without been seen actually to stir it up.

But being a good listener is hard - it can mean keeping schtum while people who don't know much hold forth, and giving them your undivided attention, too. No checking your phone, no looking out of the window or thinking about what you're going to have for dinner tonight. Bill Clinton could do it, and so must you.

Even then, listening won't get you anywhere on its own. Too often, when someone claims to be a good listener, what they really mean is that they're not much cop at taking decisions. In short, beware: you can do too much listening as well as too little.


You can be a great boss in other ways but if you don't make the effort to hire the best people you can, it all counts for nothing. Every underperforming round peg in a square hole that a bad hirer brings on board is a lost opportunity.

Often it's inadvertent - bosses can make the wrong people choices by relying overmuch on instinct. Sometimes it's deliberate - bosses who were themselves bad hires compounding the initial mistake by hiring even more lacklustre individuals who they know will never be a threat. 'Organisations are full of parasitic bosses who rise up the corporate ladder just like bacteria thrive in toxic or polluted environments,' says professor of business psychology at UCL and MT columnist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

There's a simple test to determine which side of the line you fall on this one - would you hire someone knowing that they were better than you, and could end up being your boss?


This is a classic first-time manager situation - thanks to their technical ability someone is promoted to a broader role that they don't feel able to admit not knowing how to do. So instead they just carry on doing their old job, something which they feel entirely comfortable with, but which actively hinders both their own development and that of their new team's.

And just because your first boss-job is long behind you doesn't make you immune. Look at Burberry chief Christopher Bailey, the firm's star former head of design who was made CEO in May 2014. Shares have fallen over 20% and investors are calling for the appointment of a senior executive to 'support' Bailey's perceived lack of sales and marketing nous. Oh dear.

Expand your comfort zone by constant learning, and don't be afraid of admitting that you don't know everything. Senior people can surround themselves with a good team whose collective expertise covers all the bases, whereas more junior bosses can read lots, learn from their colleagues or even get themselves a mentor.

If you're lucky you will have a good boss of your own to help you through it, says Chamorro-Premuzic. 'My best bosses have provided good advice and true mentorship, they have wanted to develop me and give me space to grow. The worst ones have been passive-aggressive, cared only about themselves and been unaware of their own incompetence.'


It's axiomatic in our late-stage capitalist world that competition is an all-round Good Thing. But even this apparently blameless mantra can be carried too far, and is being - thanks to the trend for gamification, which can make lab rats of us all by turning everything into a competition.

'Internal competition is bad for harmony in the workplace - it starts from a benign place but it can lead to very dysfunctional behaviour, even sabotage,' says CEO-turned-business-author Margaret Heffernan. The classic example is three teams from the same firm competing to win a client. When it's all over, the losers are expected to forget their defeat and work happily alongside the victors. 'Like hell they will,' she says. Such slights are not readily put aside, and a secretive culture where important information is not shared and client interests are subverted by internal politics is the likely outcome. By making winners out of a few, you inevitably make losers out of the rest. Doesn't sound so blameless now does it?


Sooner or later, every boss will be asked by their own boss to do something that they know is 'mad, bad, stupid or even dangerous', says Heffernan. 'I see this a lot in cost-cutting - just hold your nose and get on with it.' Many will succumb to the great temptation simply to pass this bald message on to their team, delivered with a world-weary shrug and a dollop of resignation on the side - it shows that you empathise, that you're all in it together, right?

Wrong. 'If you do that it makes you a bad boss,' she says. 'The worst thing you can do is to deny any responsibility.' The proper response is not blind acceptance but intelligent questioning. 'What is the ultimate goal that's trying to be achieved? Isn't there a smarter way of doing it? That's real leadership.'

And far from being career-limiting as many fear, an occasional refusal to play slavishly by their rules may be exactly what the higher-ups are looking for. 'It's an opportunity to shine. Bosses live in fear of people doing exactly what they are told, and so they should. I never got fired for not doing so - in fact it's how I got to be CEO.'


I am busy. You are late. He or she is terminally disorganised and too stupid even to tell the time.Why is it that we are ready to turn a blind eye to our own shortcomings while holding others so sternly to account for theirs? 'It's because we lack self-awareness, our desire to feel good about ourselves is stronger than our desire to understand reality. It would be a big blow to our egos to accept that the very things we hate in others we display ourselves,' says Chamorro-Premuzic.

It's the human condition - as poet TS Eliot put it 'Humankind. Cannot bear very much reality'. But the job of a boss is precisely to try and bear more reality than the other girl or guy, and so a lack of self-awareness is one of the biggest of bad boss habits that there is.

Remember also that your team are just as irrational when it comes to their weaknesses. So most will have been driven batty by their bosses' inconsistencies at some point, just as most bosses will have been ready to cheerfully strangle some of their reports, too.

It's unlikely that you are ever going to completely overcome such a powerful cognitive bias, but you can ameliorate it. The key is 'knowing how what you say and do impacts on others', says Chamorro-Premusic, and 'not taking decisions based on your own selfish interests that end up harming others'. Sounds easy doesn't it? 'It's not that hard,' he agrees. 'The problem with the world is that too many resemble the second type and not the first. Just enter "My boss is... " into Google and see what happens.'

Image credit: Hulton Deutsch / Contributor via Getty

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