Bonus Bad Boss BS: “Is this ridiculous?”
Exploring four more Strength/Weakness pairs and how picturing performance on a spectrum can help us find ways to help a bad boss moderate extreme behaviours.
This week I’ve been writing about Strength/Weakness pairs — the idea that a former strength can become a source of bad bossing. This can happen when the boss is reactive, unthinking and unconscious in the way they do their bossing. Similarly, it’s easy for us to become blinded by the badness of a bad boss. We fail to recognise and understand the source of the “badness” and this reduces our chance of helping to address and improve the situation.
In the last post I shared five Strength/Weakness pairs and suggested some strategies for how we might help a bad boss return to effectiveness after they’ve slipped into unconscious incompetence. Today I’ll share four more pairs, and suggest ways you can identify and build your own pairs.
A bad boss is often bad because they haven’t fully made the transition from managing their own output to understanding that they now operate “through” people. They’re still focused on the things that made them successful in the past — often because they enjoy it. But, very few people enjoy being micromanaged. And a boss who loves the details can easily undermine our performance, development and sense of autonomy and purpose.
Solutions: Micromanagement can be motivated by different factors. The boss might enjoy getting into the details. They might not trust you enough to relinquish control. Or they might feel they need the details to understand and operate within the wider context. Understanding the source of the behaviour gives you clues to address it. Finding a way to “contract” with the boss, establishing shared expectations about roles is one way to shine a light on their behaviour and the impacts it’s having. For micromanagement, try establishing review points where the boss can ask any questions and dive into the detail, while establishing boundaries to let you get on with your work and take the ownership you desire.
Resilience, determination, grit… these are all characteristics that can be valorised in organisations without analysis or moderation. To get things done, we often need to persist in the face of obstacles and challenges. Some things are difficult and require sustained effort. But I’ve already written about the dangers of over-relying on ‘resilience’ to get things done. There’s a similar pattern of behaviour amongst bad bosses. They assume that because they’re the boss, they should be able to do things, even when they’re ill-suited to that part of their role. Other bad bosses take on unsustainable workloads and so compromise everything they do — their stubbornness blinds them to what is achievable. They don’t ask for help. And sometimes they fall into a cycle of blaming themselves, and then those around them for failures, missing the fact they’ve created an impossible situation in the way they’ve framed their role.
Solutions: This type of bad bossing is firmly focused on trying to do the best job they can, so make that part of the solution. Where you’ve identified a development area for the boss, where you think you can help, ask for opportunities. Ask for them to delegate responsibility in this area. Providing an example of good might create a template for the bad boss to improve, and even if not, your contribution will reduce some of the pressure on the boss, likely having a positive impact somewhere.
A boss is often the custodian of quality in the team and organisation. They can help to set and maintain standards. But when a boss associates their value and worth with the quality of output, they can fall into bad boss behaviours. They might not leave room for improvisation and innovation — only trusting methods that have worked in the past. They might wastefully discard output they don’t think is good enough. They might set unreasonable expectations — demoralising teams rather than motivating them.
Solutions: The last three sentences paint pictures that are hard to argue with. Negative impacts and consequences of perfectionism can be quantified. Approach the boss, make it clear that you’re committed to quality, but paint a picture of the negative consequences that are resulting from the drive for perfection. Highlighting the risks that are the result of their interventions might motivate them to modify their behaviours.
Bosses will often be called on to make decisions. We look to leaders to lead. But sometimes this results in a disempowering dynamic when the boss becomes a dictator, rather than the decision-maker. They might ask us to provide information and analysis and then fail to listen to our input in decision-making. They may reduce our role to execution, diminishing our opportunities to learn and develop. And if they adopt expectations of unquestioning obedience they might fall into behaviours that demotivate, demoralise and put us in danger of withdrawal and despondence.
Solutions: Usually when a boss has a strength, they value it. If we can find a way for the boss to value it in others, without seeing this as a threat to their authority, we can make a bad boss an effective coach, rather than the victim of fourth stage vulnerability. Ask the boss for an area of responsibility. If they continue to overrule and dominate, remind them that this is an area you’re trying to practice. Establishing this motivation and justification will increase the focus on this area of performance, making it more conscious and intentional.
Reductio ad absurdum
This is not a spell from Harry Potter. But it can magically unlock insights to help in bad bossing behaviours. Reductio ad absurdum is a technique in logic, rhetoric and arguing. It tries to establish your side of the argument by showing that the opposing view would (eventually) lead to absurdity or contradiction.
Some bad bosses make the argument of their incompetence for us by exaggerating some aspect of strengths until they become weaknesses. Picture the person who, armed with a hammer thinks every problem is nail-shaped. Their performance takes on an absurd character as they take a strength and through over-reliance on a particular tool or unconscious performance transform it into a weakness.
We can picture the reverse journey to try to identify the road back to competence. Take a look at the aspects of “badness” from the boss and try to “reduce to reasonable”. Try to imagine a spectrum with the current “bad behaviour” on one end. Can you imagine an opposite to that behaviour? And can you identify interventions to pull the bad boss along the spectrum to moderate their behaviour and return to ‘competence.’
Strength/Weakness pairs illustrate that when a boss doesn’t pay attention to how they get things done, they can fall into incompetence. But most bosses have strengths. And sometimes their bad bossing is the result of their former strengths. If we can find the time and patience to help construct a path back to conscious competence, we can occasionally transform a bad boss into an effective and inspirational leader.