Good Things I Learned from Bad Bosses

 As I was racking my brain trying to come up with a topic for this month’s contemplation corner, for some reason I remembered an occasion when I overheard someone saying to another person, “well, you are not totally useless, you can always serve as a bad example.”

As I sat with my fingers on the keyboard of my computer pondering why that statement would pop into my mind as I was attempting to write a column about a management or leadership issue, it occurred to me that during my professional career, (1) I learned something from every boss I ever had and (2) that I learned as much from the bad bosses for whom I was fortunate enough to work as I did from the great bosses for whom I was more fortunate to work. 

When I came to that realization, I felt much like I imagine the great Greek scholar Archimedes felt when after stepping into a bath, he noticed that the water level rose, causing him to suddenly understand that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged and realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. 

It is reported that Archimedes got so excited at his discovery that he ran naked through the streets of the ancient city of Syracuse shouting “εὕρηκα, εὕρηκα” (“eureka, eureka”) which means “I found it; I found it.”

While I did not run naked through the streets of Conroe, the city in which I live, I was extremely excited that I had solved the problem of not having a topic for this month’s column. I can write about the good things I learned from bad bosses.

Some of the good things I learned from bad bosses are:

  1. I don’t want to be a micromanager – micromanagement is a management style where the manager monitors subordinates and team members extensively. This means being fully involved in their work, limiting the workforce’s creativity, autonomy, and input.

If you have worked for a micromanager, as I have, you know what I am talking about.  I hope you have decided, as I have, I do not want to be a micromanager.  It has been my observation that Micromanagement is exhausting not only to the micromanaged, but to the micromanager as well. Looking over the shoulders of every employee every day will quickly burn out a manager. It can take a terrible toll on the manager’s physical and mental health. 

Micromanagers tend to grow to hate their jobs even to the point of hating the organization which employs them. Some grow to hate it so much that they end up quitting their job and decide they never want to be in management again.

If you have a tendency to be a micromanager, take a step back, relax and realize that if you hire competent people and provide them with the skill, knowledge, resources, and guidance to do their jobs, your employees can manage to successfully do their jobs without you hovering over their shoulders.

While managers need to exercise control, that control should come with clear direction and guidance for employees to follow and enabling allow employees to practice following the direction and guidance while asking questions as needed to perform tasks.

As employees successfully follow the guidance, they are learning to be capable, confident and independent. As a result, job satisfaction, production creativity, and morale are all high. It is a winning situation for the employee, the manager and the organization.

  1. Actions speak louder than words When your action does not your words, people believe your actions, not your words.

In interviews conducted during management studies, I have had executives tell me how important the vision and/or mission or their organization is, yet when I walk through their organization and see no evidence of the vision and mission and I talk to employees who cannot tell me what the vision or mission is.  I find it hard to believe that it is as important to the boss as he or she says it is. 

A boss telling the team that he or she is going to hold someone accountable for a mistake is one thing. Actually holding them accountable is an entirely different thing. Most of us have been in a situation where the boss said there would be consequences for something only to take no action. That tells the rest of the team that it’s okay to do certain things. When that happens things usually start to fall apart for the entire organization.

Employees seldom perform well for bosses who actions belie their words.

  1. Employees have lives outside of work While I have high performance standards for the people whom I lead and manage, I also realize there are demands upon their lives that are not related to work.

While a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Semi-nary, I obtained a job as a medical records clerk on the 3 pm to 11 pm shift, Monday through Friday at a local hospital. 

During my orientation, the Director of Medical Records told me, “I noticed that you are a student at the seminary.  You will probably be glad to hear that you will not have to work on Sundays.”

A couple of years later, when I clocked in for my shift on Friday, the Director asked me to come to her office.  She said, I know I told you that you would never have to work on Sundays when you were hired, but we have a situation and I need you to work the 3-11 shift on both Saturday and Sunday this weekend.  When I told her that I already had plans for the weekend, she replied, “You are going to have to cancel your plans because we have an audit next week and we have a lot to do to get ready.” 

I explained to her that I could not do that because I had agreed to fill in for a preacher who had already left the state on a vacation. and the next day I would be driving to the city where I would be preaching on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Her response was, “I am not asking you to work on this weekend, I am telling you, you will be working the 3-11 pm shift this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday” 

I offered an alternative.  I suggested that I work a double shift on Saturday and then get up really early on Sunday morning and make the 3 1/2 drive to preach there on Sunday morning.  She accused me of not being a team player and told me that I either worked the 3-11 pm shift on Saturday and Sunday or I would be fired.  I told her that I would work on Saturday and that I really needed the job, but I had made a commitment that I did not feel I could cancel since this was Friday afternoon and the pastor had already left on vacation.     

Her response was that the church not having someone to preach on Sunday was not her problem, but getting everything ready for the audit was.  I told her that I would work the Saturday shift, but could not work the on Sunday. 

Her response was that I would work both Saturday and Sunday or I would be fired.  

I worked the 3-11 pm job on Saturday and drove to the town where the church was after I got off work that night so that I could sleep in a little longer on Sunday morning before I preached. As I drove I also made the decision then that I needed to start looking for another job whether or not I got fired. 

On Monday, when I arrived for my shift, the Director was waiting.  She instructed me to follow her to office. Once we were in her office, the conversation went something like this:

“Did you work this weekend as I told you to?”

“I worked on Saturday, but did not on Sunday because of the previous commitment I told you about.”

“Is that what I told you to do?”

“No, but I told you that I would not be here on Sunday and offered to work a double shift on Saturday to help get ready for the audit. You refused that offer and I told I would work the Saturday shift as you requested, but that I could not work on Sunday.”

“You could not or you would not?”

 “If a previous commitment does not qualify for ‘could not,’ then I guess the answer is ‘would not.”  

“What did I tell you would happen if you did not work the 3-11 on Saturday and Sunday this weekend?”

“You told me I would be fired.”

“Well, since you disobeyed a direct order knowing you would be fired, all I can say is ‘your fired.’ Your final check will be mailed to you tomorrow.”

While I would not want to work for that boss one like that boss again, I have to admit that in this situation her actions were in alignment with what she had told me. 

Not all people will be faced with the decision I was, but many will work for supervisors who insist that the job takes precedence over everything else in their lives. Treating people with dignity and respect and extending the courtesy of respecting their personal lives should not depend on their performance at work. Failing to demonstrate that you can care about people when the going gets tough shows them your true colors. Mistreating people in such a way means that you can pretty much say goodbye to any goodwill you might have built up until this point.

Good Things I Learned from Bad Bosses

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