Bad Boss BS: “I only need to be good at one thing.”

Understanding the ‘ingredients’ within a situation and their amount or intensity can unlock insights to improve bad bossing.

5 min readApr 16, 2022
Four 2d bad boss characters stood close to but slightly apart from a 3d bad boss character.

This month on the Bad Boss Blog Series has been about how “excess” can lead to bad boss behaviours. When a boss relies too heavily on a former strength, using an approach even when it’s inappropriate it can lead to bad bossing. I’ve already written about techniques which focus on that skill and try to pull the boss back towards conscious evaluation of situations and performance. But are there other techniques to unlock insights and strategies we can use when bad bossing is due to an ‘extreme’ form of a potential strength?

Let the scales fall from my eyes…

Strength weakness pairs introduced one way we can think about and visualise strengths. Placing things on a scale allows us to consider and measure the “amount” of something. We can place a particular skill, competency or behaviour on a scale and then try to identify a level of competence. Of course, we can also use a scale to represent other measures or estimates — confidence, reliance, experience — and each of these estimates might provide us with insights that help us make better use of the skill.

Strength-Weakness pairs use two scales, or one scale that’s extended in two directions, positive and negative. It allows us to consider the relationship between two extremes. And using this type of scale can also help us visualise a “span of competence” — where might we fall on the scale on our best day and how low we might go when we’re under stress, pressure or underperforming.

The bad boss character is now next to a scale with two extremes and an area on the scale is marked with a block, indicating the range of “good” and “bad” performance that the boss is capable of.

We can visualise any scale like this. We can ask for feedback, spot patterns in the things people say and start to visualise performance as a range to describe the benefits of good performance and the risks associated with “bad” performance. We can also do this for a boss. It might put into the perspective the “volume” of good and bad performance.

Burch’s original model suggests that at least some “bad” performance is the result of unconscious performance. The formerly competent performer falls into “fourth stage vulnerability” and they become “unconsciously incompetent,” just as they were before they’d developed the skill. Burch’s model is a cycle. That way of imagining skills and competence is useful, because it suggest that a little nudge into conscious performance can break the spell of incompetence and then we can accelerate through the cycle back into competence.

The Noel Burch competence model described in previous posts.

The journey from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence is much quicker the second and any subsequent time around the cycle — we just need to address compromising factors that we’ve introduced through unconscious negligence — if we pay attention to these and eradicate them, we’re usually quickly back to competence.

A linear scale doesn’t encourage us to think about the cyclical nature of development and performance. But it can help us visualise and think about skills in different ways.

One of these ways is the ‘span of competence’ we see in Strength-Weakness pairs. We don’t sit at a single point on the scale — we usually have a range that we perform at and where we sit on any particular day will be dependent on lots of factors — who we’re working with, the complexity of the task and situation, what we had for breakfast… being comfortable that skills and performance fluctuate is useful when we’re thinking about our own skills. It’s also useful when we’re thinking about a boss. Bosses are bound to have bad days too. Acknowledging that their performance will sit across a range helps us to manage expectations.

The mediating forces

Using a linear scale with positive and negative extremes or describing skills that sit in tension can unlock other insights too. Strength-Weakness pairs highlight a relationship between two competencies. They help us to form a hypothesis or theory between two skills or sets of behaviour. And they suggest that one skill can act as a sort of counterbalance to another way of behaving.

Bad bossing is often the result of a boss unconsciously developing a set of skills that negatively reinforce each other. Their confidence becomes arrogance, their clarity becomes stifling proscriptive direction, their ability to deliver becomes impatience. All of these potentially bad bossing behaviours interact, align and resonate to amplify the badness and make life miserable.

But as soon as we realise that skills and behaviours interact in this way. We can consciously consider the skills and behaviours we cultivate. Rather than being the victim of naturally occurring ‘Strength-Weakness pairs’ we can cultivate Strength pairs, using improvements or conscious effort in one area to offset a natural behaviour that might become a weakness or source of bad bossing.

Two scales, one for “adventurous” and another for “conscientious”. The blocks indicating competence are high for both behaviours.

The chances of survival for this keen amateur parachutist have been improved by her finding ways to cultivate conscientiousness to help balance out her adventurous streak. She loves to take risks. She also gives herself the best chance of survival by checking things twice.

People are like a lasagne, and that doesn’t get said often enough. Most of us are about three of four main parts, with lots of additional ingredients that make up the rest. We’ve got multiple layers. Some people have got aubergine in them (which I can’t fully get on board with)… but the point is, there’s a lot going on and the ingredients that make us what we are can’t be separated or thought of in isolation from the whole.

When we see or experience bad bossing, identifying the ingredients within the situation can help us to spot and develop coping strategies. We can try to visualise the ‘range’ of performance we’ve experienced in the past to deepen our understanding and calibrate expectations. Listing the factors at play — the behaviours we’re experiencing makes us more aware of what we’re bringing to the situation, as well as the helpful resources the boss and we might not be using. And forming a list of the ingredients can also help us identify what’s missing (ingredients we could develop for future interactions) or unhelpful additions that we could remove or reduce (aubergine).




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.)