Having a bad boss can make every day at work feel like a struggle. Communication is hard, individuals don’t feel recognized, and their support needs aren’t being met. Team members can even dread being around a boss, because their criticism or lack of boundaries makes them feel uncomfortable. It feels like their best isn’t good enough for them. Worse still, they don’t feel like they can say anything.
There are bad managers in every niche, at every size of company. They exist in small businesses, startups, and worldwide organizations. They might be a direct manager or the CEO or co-founder.
People often don’t start out as bad managers. But over time, behaviors and habits can develop that make someone’s management style hard to deal with — leading to them becoming a bad boss.
In this guide, we’ll explore:
- The impact of having a bad boss
- The traits and characteristics of a bad boss
- How to respond in a productive way
There’s no magic wand that’ll transform a bad boss into an amazing one, but this guide will help you understand the warning signs and find new ways to keep your work life positive.
The impact of having a bad boss
A bad boss can have a hugely negative impact on someone’s experience at work. In fact, one study found that 75% of respondents said their bad boss was the worst thing about their workplace.
When one person is having an impact that big, it can affect almost every aspect of someone’s time at work. This leads to challenges like:
- 📈 Poor employee retention and high turnover rates
- ⭐ Difficulty attracting clients or employees
- 💸 Higher recruitment and HR costs
- 😔 Negative impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing
- 👎 Low employee morale and employee satisfaction
- 💼 Poor work-life balance due to worry and stress
- 🛑 Negative reputation or press coverage
A bad experience with a boss, or ongoing exposure to a toxic boss, can leave deep marks on the way your employees feel about work. It’s not a lost cause, though. Once you’ve identified the warning signs and behaviors of a bad boss, you can take steps to resolve the issues.
7 traits and characteristics that can make someone a bad boss
While some bad managers show their true nature right away, it’s not always easy to identify the warning signs or red flags during your interview or first days on the job. Here are some negative traits and characteristics that can help you spot a bad boss, so you can find a faster route towards solving the challenges. Or, if you are a manager who identifies with some of these traits, it’s helpful to understand how they impact your team.
1. Poor communication
A bad boss or a bad manager is likely to be a poor communicator. This can manifest in different ways.
Your boss might be a micromanager who over-communicates about every task, making each activity feel overwhelming and restrictive. Or, they may struggle to give you clear directions, then complain that you didn’t follow their directions. Lastly, another form of poor communication is using an abrupt or in a negative tone.
A great manager understands the importance of clear, concise communication and does so with consideration of others. They don’t shout, bully, ignore, or pester. Communication with a good boss feels effortless, confident, and free from worry.
2. Clear favoritism
While we might have a favorite team member, it’s a boss’s job not to let that show or affect the way they manage everyone in the team. Showing too much favoritism can be a red flag.
People can show favoritism in different ways. They might always choose one person to lead projects, or to make the final decision. They might go to them for advice or ideas, and not offer the same opportunities to others. They could support one team member in greater ways than another with more training, better clients, or a more lenient approach to rule-breaking.
A more experienced and thoughtful boss knows not to favor one person over another. They hand out opportunities and support based on individual talents, needs, and desires — selecting the best person for the job, or the right support for someone in need. With a good boss, the team doesn’t need to worry about playing favorites to get opportunities they deserve.
3. Not open to feedback
We’ve all known people who struggle to take constructive feedback, even if it’s well-intentioned and delivered in the most respectful way possible. When this person is a boss, they can cause some major issues.
A difficult boss is often not open to constructive feedback. Challenges can be met with anger or frustration, instead of an appreciation for someone’s openness and willingness to find solutions. In an environment where direct reports can’t give feedback freely, everything suffers. Excellent client work, positive internal relationships, career progression, and innovation are all harder to achieve.
With a great boss, this isn’t an issue. Their teams can raise issues, suggest ideas, and give input about their ideas without fear. Feedback becomes positive, and it’s often embedded into a team’s weekly routines and project meetings.
Most of us like to keep our work and personal life relatively separate, but there will be times when team members need to lean on a manager for support or simply explain a personal situation that could affect their work. An unsupportive boss can make seeking support a huge challenge, which means needs often go unmet.
An unsupportive boss might be disinterested in the situation, or overlook it completely. They might make unrealistic demands that one simply can’t meet, given their personal issues. They might be unwilling to make a referral for support, or to adjust a deadline.
Unsupportive and uncaring bosses tend to strongly favor the needs of the business ahead of the person in front of them. A better manager knows how to support their direct reports and can offer flexibility, support, and comfort. They help make a difficult situation better, not add to the worry.
5. Taking all the credit
Some people are only too happy to take credit for the hard work of others. Unfortunately, some of these people end up being managers.
Bad managers can take credit for their team members’ accomplishments, even if they’ve played little to no role. They’re happy to collect congratulations and accolades instead of acknowledging those that deserve credit. They’re comfortable minimizing others’ contributions in favor of making themselves look better.
A great boss is willing to sit in the background to shine the spotlight on others. They celebrate individuals’ achievements and champion their direct reports.
6. Poor boundaries
Boundaries are important in all areas of life, including work. When a boss doesn’t set or respect healthy boundaries, it’s tough for their teams to feel comfortable at work.
A boss with poor boundaries makes things unnecessarily difficult for others. They might be a workaholic and expect everyone to extend their own work hours to match. They might have no boundaries and struggle to say no, then pass those demands and deadlines to their teams. They might even ask invasive questions or not respect personal space, creating a toxic work environment.
A good manager understands the value of boundaries. They respect employee work-life balance and needs. Their management style is respectful of others’ personal space, choices, and boundaries.
7. Lack of desire to manage
Sometimes a bad boss is in a role they aren’t suited for or don’t enjoy. People are often promoted through the ranks thanks to their practical skills — not their ability to lead and inspire others.
Managers who don’t enjoy the role tend to be hard to communicate and reason with, or completely unapproachable. They might bury themselves in technical work, and be unwilling to offer support or guidance. They might go through the motions of being a boss, but lack interest or desire in making a positive impact on their team.
The best managers are those who enjoy the job and have the skills to manage remote teams. For some it comes naturally, and for others it’s picked up through training and experience.
How to address bad boss behaviors
While it’s true that some people just aren’t suited to be managers, others can be transformed into a good boss with the help of the right techniques and support. A bad boss who recognizes these traits within themself might be motivated to change if they get the right guidance.
Here are some of the best initiatives that can shape a culture and encourage productive management styles. As a higher-up, you support positive management styles when you:
1. Open up channels of communication
Clearer communication can help improve any of the issues we face. Introduce a culture where you set clear expectations and ask cultures, so there are fewer chances for confusion or misinterpretation.
Encourage managers to check in with their direct reports regularly, with the help of our weekly team check-in and monthly happiness check-in templates. Use asynchronous communication tools like Slack to stay in touch and set boundaries and guidelines for how you communicate as a team.
2. Embrace training and learning opportunities
A good manager knows they don’t know everything. Promote ongoing learning by investing in training opportunities for each of your managers.
Introduce a basic training program to guide your managers on what they need to know, then create a tailored plan for each based on their own desires and challenges. Leadership skills, communication skills, conflict resolution, and equality and diversity are all great subject areas for managers to learn more about.
3. Create a safe space for feedback
A great boss not only accepts feedback, but welcomes and actively encourages it. Give your managers the tools they need to make receiving feedback easier, so they can change for the better.
Learn more about how Polly can help you create systems of continuous feedback that allow you to work better together and scale.
4. Introduce employee recognition programs
Receiving recognition for your work can boost morale and help team members know they’re appreciated, but knowing how and when to celebrate their direct reports can be challenging for managers to understand. Make things easier by introducing employee recognition programs.
Create a system where managers can submit good news stories to be shared with the rest of the company. Introduce creative employee awards, with bonuses or rewards that your team members can choose from. Make celebrating achievements the “norm”, and managers are more likely to engage with the process.
5. Shape your team culture
You might have a company culture, but each team also tends to develop their own based on the personalities and habits within it. Encourage your teams to strengthen their team culture and set values and expectations that guide how they work together.
Figure out your boundaries and how you like to communicate with each other. Decide how you like to have fun, and add some of this to your weekly routine — like sharing memes or playing office games. Work out how you’ll handle challenges, and how you approach delays or unexpected roadblocks. All of this helps you strengthen team bonds and set realistic expectations that everyone should stick to.
6. Make tough decisions
We wish there was a magic fix for everything, but sometimes the situation is untenable and you have to make tough decisions. If you’re experiencing increased workplace conflict, tension, and low morale due to a toxic boss, it’s time to evaluate the situation.
Introduce an employee handbook that outlines what you expect when it comes to behavior and working with others. Set a policy and procedure that backs that up, so you can swiftly handle problems and show employees that you take their experience seriously. In a particularly difficult situation, you need the confidence to say goodbye to one manager to improve the employee experience for all.
Turn a bad boss situation into something positive
If you’re working under a bad boss or you’ve noticed traits of a bad boss in yourself, know that there’s opportunity for change. Once you’ve spotted the bad habits and behaviors, you can work on introducing initiatives and culture changes that encourage all your managers down the right path.
Feedback and open communication are in the heart of any successful team. Discover how Polly’s feedback and coaching tools can help you create better systems, so giving and receiving feedback becomes an effortless part of your company culture.
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Written by Nicola Scoon
Nicola Scoon is a freelance writer that's passionate about employee engagement and better workplace experiences. She draws on her experience in internal communications to help companies create content that empowers, encourages, and motivates people to create better experiences for all.