Bad Boss BS: “I got carried away…”

We’re now three months into the bad boss blog series, which gives me a chance to reflect on some patterns. I like to classify and group things to make them easier to understand and use. I’ve noticed that a lot of the challenges that bad bosses can present us with come about because of an “extreme” behaviour. The bad boss loses their grip on a certain skill, approach or preference and it becomes a weakness, rather than a strength.

Bosses usually have strengths, even if we find it hard to spot them. And bad bossing is often the result of inattention by the boss, resulting in the strength becoming a weakness. This weeks posts explore that idea and introduce the idea of Strength/Weakness pairs as a way of approaching particular types of bad bossing.

Inattention blindness

There’s so much information in the world that it’s hard to keep track of it all. We naturally filter out information and focus our attention on where we think it’s most useful. Noel Burch presents a model for how we learn new skills that hints at how this ‘filtering’ can result in incompetence.

When we learn a new skill we’re usually ignorant of just how bad we are. Burch calls this stage ‘unconscious incompetence’. Most ‘beginners’ occupy this position — they just don’t know that a certain technique or skillset exists. As soon as we’re introduced to this skill — or a blindspot is pointed out to us — we can become ‘consciously incompetent’. Of course, some people might maintain their blindspot, in spite of evidence and remain at step one — unconscious of just how bad they are. For readers of the bad boss blog series, that situation might sound familiar.

For others, being ‘consciously incompetent’ is the beginning of a learning cycle. Now that the spotlight of conscious attention is focused on the skills gap, we can invest time, attention and energy in getting better. We practice. And practice leads to more proficiency and eventually results in ‘conscious competence’ — with careful attention we can now do a thing which formerly we couldn’t.

As we grow in confidence and competence, our lazy brains begin that filtering process, moving the spotlight of attention away from the skill we’ve acquired to focus on another area, which now demands more of our attention. There are lots of things we do perfectly well unconsciously — breathing, driving, walking. All of these “skills” enter into a sort of automatic performance. We can still pull our attention to correct mistakes when needed — regulating our breathing when we jump into an icy pool, steering into a skid to avoid catastrophe, faking a skip when we stumble into a curb. But most of the time we’re not paying attention to everything we’re doing. We unconsciously competent.

A bad boss surrounded by the learning cycle I’ve just described — moving through unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. At this stage we’re sometimes vulnerable to falling back into incompetence.

Some of these attentional blindspots are fine — they make us more efficient and able to focus and divert our attention to where it’s most useful. But like any blindspot, danger can lurk here. Burch describes how this ‘unconscious competence’ is liable to ‘fourth stage vulnerability’, because like me he likes a grandiose name you could stick on a T-Shirt.

Fourth Stage vulnerability describes the danger of falling straight back into unconscious incompetence once we stop paying attention to the skills we take for granted. We assume that we’re now a great driver, with years of experience, unconscious of the fact that we’ve become lazy, distractible and dangerous. It’s a form on ‘inattention blindness,’ when we fail to notice something that’s clearly visible to us and others, because our attention is focused elsewhere.

Blinded by success

Lots of bad bosses are victims of ‘fourth stage vulnerability.’ They’ve taken their eye off the ball and it’s smacked them in the face — or it’s bounced off them and hit us in the face… either way, someone has a hurty face.

While some forms of incompetence are the consequence of fourth stage vulnerability, that incompetence can take different forms. Some bad bosses will simply start doing the thing wrong. Other bosses might over-rely on a skill, doing the thing relatively right but in the wrong contexts. And some bosses will then start to do the thing with too much “intensity” — using a sort of brute force technique to try to achieve success even when they’re using the wrong tool or technique. This over-reliance and “extreme” behaviour is the root of lots of bad bossing.

In the next post I’ll explore some Strength/Weakness pairs and suggest that by thinking about strengths and weaknesses as two sides of the same coin, we might be able to develop strategies to “flip” a bad boss and make them more effective and easier to understand and work with.



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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)