Bosses from hell: How not to lead

Having a bad boss may have its uses. You'll know which behaviours you want to avoid. We asked four leaders to share their stories or poor leadership, and the lessons they learned.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 03 Dec 2019

Everyone has had at least one bad boss. Working for a bad leader stifles motivation, reduces productivity, and increases stress and anxiety. But working under a poor leader can be educational. Here’s how these leaders turned their experiences of bad bosses into valuable management insight.

Never dish the dirt

Freccia Benn is the co-founder of Accounting for Energy, a company that audits land earmarked for renewable energy production to give an accurate idea of the return. While working for a previous company, she had a boss who was indiscreet about the reasons for a colleague’s absence from work.

"I had a boss who once shouted aloud in front of a number of members of staff that the reason a colleague wasn't at work that day was because 'she had a miscarriage'," she says. "This was not the only occasion where he had done this kind of thing. I witnessed how much time was wasted in idle gossip over the situation, how embarrassing it was for the young lady in question and how it made me distrust this boss." 

Benn says this taught her the damaging effects of workplace gossip. "It made me put my guard up, question everything I spoke about, and made me eventually leave," she says.

"I have learned that workplace culture and trust are so important when building a business and that it affects so many other areas of work. It starts from the top. Now I always ensure any inkling of gossip or bad vibes is quickly dealt with within our company."

Don’t clip their wings

Modern leaders may say they give their staff autonomy in the workplace, allowing them to be entrepreneurial and make their own decisions, but this isn’t always the case. Soniamarie Palmer, chief executive of the eponymous consultancy firm, says that she has been on the receiving end of micromanagement. "One of my previous bosses was someone who always wanted to be in control," she explains.

"On the surface, they appeared to be supportive and encouraging, promoting autonomy. But this autonomy was only granted within their boundaries. After a while it got pretty wearing. I got the job because of my expertise and skills so I knew what I was doing. But soon I was second-guessing everything.

"My experience made me think about how I want to lead," she explains. "I try to be clear in my instructions and communicate what my expectations are so that people don’t feel confused or frustrated. I share information and involve colleagues in decisions.

"I do not always get it right but I encourage people to tell me when I don’t. That is the only way that I can learn and improve my leadership skills."

Avoid pointless rules

Dana Denis-Smith is the founder and CEO of Obelisk, the legal support platform. She remembers working for a boss who was a stickler for the rules – even when they were unnecessary and annoying.

"He would only let you write in pencil on any documents and would rage if anyone tried a pen," she recalls. "He also was fixated on 9am start times, regardless of whether there was work to do."

At Obelisk, Denis-Smith has implemented flexible working, which helps people fit their job around their family life. "I let people have their own style and don’t micromanage," she says.

Forget outdated hierarchies

Natalie Malevsky is vice president of product marketing at media start-up Culture Trip. She has had 13 roles in her career across 11 different companies.

"I’ve seen my fair share of team dramas and leadership fails," she says. "I’ve been shouted at in meetings, accused of insubordination and had my right to be in the job questioned."

Over the course of her career, Malevsky has found workplace hierarchies tough to navigate. "I remember a pivotal moment in my career when I was told off for ‘daring’ to join a call with senior executives - despite being on the invite," she says. "I was asked aggressively to get off the phone. When I raised this with my line manager, they dismissed it as being culturally normal."

This has led her to adopt a totally different management style that encourages communication across all levels of seniority within the business. "I assume best intent, practice empathy and don’t tolerate aggression or mindless negativity," she says. "It is these principles that lead to positive performance, and that will not go unnoticed with your customers."

Images: Sascha Steinbach / Stringer

 

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