Bad Boss BS: “I’m probably the most humble person I know.”

Four 2d characters looking unimpressed next to a 3d bad boss character

Being a boss requires confidence. Bosses make decisions, take a lead and set an example. It requires a lot of confidence at times. And some bosses can fall into the trap of this required confidence overcoming their humility and creating bad bossing behaviours. So what are the ego traps that bosses can fall into?

Lots of bad bossing, like other negative behaviours, can result when a boss loses a sense of moderation and allows a preference or imagined strength get out of control. Most of us know that our strengths can become weaknesses, when we have too much confidence and rely on them in situations when they’re not useful. This is true for lots of bad bossing. And it’s especially true when the “leadership” behaviours that got the boss their position get out of hand. One strength to a boss is confidence — it enables action and provides reassurance when action could be damaging. It provides a foundation for decision-making. But ego can also get in the way and actually undermine a boss and their performance.

Dunning-Kruger and the Credibility Gap

This is not the name of the band I formed when I was 15. The Dunning-Kruger effect is named after the authors who first described the gap between confidence and competence — specifically when the person is unaware that this gap exists for them. David Dunning and Justin Kruger observed that sometimes the incompetent are the least qualified to spot their incompetence. Anyone can join the Dunning-Kruger club. But I think bosses might be particularly susceptible for multiple reasons.

Keep it simple, stupid

A good boss will be capable of simplifying the complex to provide clear, consistent direction. Bad bosses, on the other hand, have a habit of ignoring things, complicating things and adding confusion. They can do this for two reasons. Some overestimate their intelligence and conflate complexity with brilliance — forgetting that true genius simplifies. They adopt a sort of pseudo-expertise and think that the reason that others don’t understand things as they do is because they’re brilliant, not because they’re misunderstanding. Their confidence encourages them that their way of seeing the world is right. So even when they do see things that others don’t, they’re usually not able to share this effectively with other people.

Others bosses do understand that simplicity is usually more effective and efficient — but they take things too far, refusing to acknowledge or understand “complicating” factors when they are an important part of the situation. Egos can reinforce these natural preferences for complexity or simplicity and mean that the boss fails to adapt to the situation or the people they’re leading or managing.

Success is not always transferable — but confidence often is

Just because they excel in some areas, it doesn’t mean they’re brilliant at everything. We’ve already seen in the BBBS that the Peter Principle can place people in jobs they’re not well-suited to. Bosses can enter an area and carry forward a false sense of confidence. Their misdiagnosis of competence feeds their ego. And their ego and incompetence form a barrier which makes it harder for them to spot what they’re getting wrong.

A little less information, a little more action

Bosses are sometimes spread across lots of things. They don’t have the time or mental capacity to get into the detail. But an ego can reassure them that they know enough. A little information can be the most dangerous amount of information — and when combined with an ego it can be deadly. Total novices are usually aware that they lack competence. But a boss has usually had some success in their past. And this can be a dangerous source of reassurance when a little more doubt and humility would lead to better interactions and outcomes.

The ego of a bad boss can act as an inescapable source of gravity.

From Adam Grant (

I’ve described a set of problems caused by an imbalance of humility and confidence. The ego of a bad boss can act as an inescapable source of gravity that pulls every interaction from the happy path, towards disaster. Unsurprisingly, the solution is often to introduce the counter-balance of humility into the situation. And that’s what tomorrow’s post will be about — confident humility.



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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.)