If you want to get a quick laugh or a snarky response from a friend, just ask about a bad boss they’ve had in the past.There’s almost never a shortage of stories or experiences to share. It’s true for all of us. In fact, the topic itself–bad bosses–is not an easy one to write about. As always, our aim is to help our audience to lead better and grow faster. To do so, we can’t always focus on our strengths, even though that’s a great place to start most of the time. We must also uncover our weaknesses to improve as leaders.
As you may recognize yourself in the following passages, be careful about that. The following content might otherwise be misconstrued to represent people we have worked with throughout our careers. It might even seem that we’re reflecting on our own leadership as many of our readers have witnessed us, firsthand, with mistakes and mishaps. Regardless, this topic deserves attention.
Why bad boss behaviors this month? Simply put: retention. We should all be focused on staff retention, specifically teacher retention. And bad boss behaviors get us into trouble in terms of losing staff. Too often, when leaders think about retention, they target things that they can do for others. We also need to direct our attention to how we behave as leaders.
Despite the funny, albeit inappropriate movie, Horrible Bosses, most leaders aren’t as outright awful as the characters in the film. We won’t likely find a “maneater” or “tool” in the position of principal. The movie is an exaggeration, which is what makes it funny. But what makes the exaggeration work is that there’s truth in the depiction of the horrible bosses.
That said, the behaviors that alienate staff, limit their success, and even sabotage our efforts are far more subtle. As a leadership development firm, our goal is to needle through these subtleties to empower leaders to be more effective. Because we travel to schools around the country, conducting school leadership training in so many districts, we get to see too many of the pitfalls that we’re going to get into in this blog. We hope this isn’t true for you, and if it is, we hope you’ll consider a change by developing the skills that are included in our remedies below.
Bad Boss Behavior #1: Micromanaging Your Team
The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake. The best people don’t need to be managed. Guided, taught, led–yes. But not tightly managed. ~ Jim Collins
Micromanagement is a common problem in organizations across a wide variety of industries. Unfortunately, from our experience working with schools and districts around the country, it’s rampant in education. One primary reason that it’s so prevalent for educational leaders to be micromanagers is because we are altruistic by nature. We entered the field because we want to help others, and we often end up micromanaging for that same reason.
That doesn’t make it okay. If you’re managing people and projects that are below your scope of reporting or that simply belong at another level, you’re demonstrating bad boss behaviors. In fact, micromanagement, although a common problem, is the worst BBB that you can have. There are several clear signs that you’ve fallen into this trap:
- You’re doing work that others should be doing to serve the organization. You might even be at a meeting that someone else should have attended for you. Worse yet, you called a meeting with an outside group, and you didn’t invite the people who need to be at the table. Sign number one.
- You consistently feel the need to be in-the-know on everything, even minor details. You take control of the work even after it’s underway, change directions after decisions have been made, and insert yourself just enough that no one else can really take the lead. Sign number two.
- You reach past your direct reports and sometimes past their direct reports to get clarity on an issue or to manage something new. The best example of this that we’ve seen recently is a principal of a large high school who micromanaged something in the counseling department when an assistant principal had that as her scope of work. And she didn’t even know about the priority until a counselor told her about it. Sign number three.
Micromanagement stems from insecurity, a lack of trust, and insufficient communication regarding the vision. People who are insecure about the value that they add are more likely to jump around in the chain of command to try to be of value wherever they can instead of focusing on the value they should add in their role. Micromanagers lack trust that others will perform a task the way that they would do it. And, leaders with a crystal clear vision for how they want a project to turn out–those who know how to paint done as we’ve learned from Brene Brown–don’t micromanage at all.
The problem is that not only is it unproductive, it causes apathy, humiliation, and even embarrassment to your staff. When you micromanage people, they shut down completely, doing even less work than what you’re managing them to do. They become humiliated that you’re constantly doing their work or meeting with people that should be reporting to them. And, worse yet, you’re embarrassing them by communicating that you don’t think they’re capable of the work you’ve essentially stolen from them.
The Micromanagement Remedy
If you know you are a micromanager and you want to end this behavior, do the following:
Ask yourself, and ultimately answer, these three simple questions every time you need action on something, especially prior to a meeting you’re about to schedule:
- Whose role in the organization fits this work best?
- Who should I assign to this task?
- When should it be completed?
Empowering leaders assign work and then follow up. They’re very rarely around when the work is getting done. That’s not the role of a visionary.
Bad Boss Behavior #2: Withholding Information from Others
Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship. ~ Bruce Coville
Of course, the bad boss behavior we are discussing here is not withholding information on purpose. That would make them a horrible boss like the ones in the movie. It’s also worth noting that displaying one or two bad boss behaviors here-and-there doesn’t make someone a terrible boss to have. However, when leaders are not actively working on the remedies–whether they recognize themselves in the bad behaviors or not–they just might be a bad boss (if you’re reading this blog, it’s because you care about leading better and growing faster so that’s a good thing and a reminder to yourself that you want to be better in your role).
Back to the problem: bosses who withhold information. If you’re withholding information from your subordinates, and you’re not doing it on purpose, it’s likely that you have a systems problem. In other words, you’re going about your day, learning all kinds of new things about the organization’s moving parts, but you don’t have a forum to share what you’re learning with the people who are supposed to be managing those parts. We call this The Information Bottleneck Syndrome. It’s when information is being funneled to a source (usually a person) who doesn’t have the capacity to disseminate it.
The problem is that any bottleneck, especially in the case of information, slows the organization down, rendering it incapable of meeting its goals. In The Goal, Goldratt explains the Theory of Constraints. Organizations simply cannot move toward their goals until the natural and imposed constraints are removed. Worse yet, if you, as the leader, are the one introducing a constraint into the organization, you’re likely not going to remove it without help and no one else is likely going to say something to you (because you’re the boss and rarely does a subordinate point out our bad behavior to us). The good news is that there is help, and it comes in the form of a strategic remedy.
The Information Bottleneck Syndrome Remedy
To remedy the problem of the information bottleneck that results from leaders who consistently gain access to information but then don’t share it with the rest of the chain of command, we find the need for a new communication method or tool. And it really is a new communication method or tool, not a meeting or structure or document (or some other administrivia that we might think to introduce when information-sharing has become a problem). The simplest of tools is text or email; we like Voxer, Slack, and other more sophisticated technologies, but the key is the immediacy of the use. In other words, at the moment you learn of a new problem, process, procedure, or another piece of information, you communicate it right away.
It looks like this: you’re walking down the hall and someone from one of the departments in your organization says, “did you know that…” You find out that the science curriculum isn’t going to arrive on time or maybe you find out that a teacher won an award. Right at that moment, you have to assemble in your mind anyone else who might not have that information (maybe they do but assume they don’t) and would want to know it (and would want to know that you know it).
At that point in time, as the person who just told you moves down the hall, you send a Voxer–or another strategy using your new communication method–to all the people who should know: “Hey, just heard that the science curriculum is late. John told me as we were passing in the hall here in Stern School Elementary as I was doing my rounds. Thought you should know if you didn’t already. I’ll look to you for an update about that. Thanks.”
You want to be deliberate about your communication to include a four-part message: 1. what the information is, 2. how you found out about it, 3. why you know before the person who should know before you (the one receiving the message), and 4. that they’re back in charge of whatever it is. The last part is to get it back off of your plate and to empower the people under you. If you don’t do all four parts, especially part four, they’ll assume that you’re taking control of the problem and that it’s actually off of their plate now.
Bad Boss Behavior #3: Stealing Great Ideas
One can steal ideas, but no one can steal execution or passion. ~ Tim Ferriss
Here, again, we’re not accusing a leader of overtly being an idea thief. That’s not “bad,” it’s mean. But we’re all in meetings all day where ideas are being presented. We jump from one meeting to the next, and they often blend together in terms of who says what. They also tend to overlap in terms of the organization’s overall goals. This means that one idea in one meeting might be a good solution to a problem presented in a different meeting. Because leaders are the glue, appearing at the cross-section of every major issue and initiative, we hear all of the great ideas that can be shared across the organization.
The problem is that as ideas spread, their owner is often lost, which leaves the last person to share the idea as the assumed originator of that idea.
We call this The Idea Propagation Problem. As ideas spread, with the leader being a natural conduit of information, the owner of the idea loses credit. Not that people are actively looking for some sort of credit, but they are definitely not looking to be robbed of it. People genuinely want to contribute to the team, and when we steal their ideas–even when we’re just looking to solve a problem using something we heard in another meeting–it strips away trust and loyalty as well.
Over time, this diminishes our ability to solve organizational problems at all because people quit volunteering their best thoughts. Instead of advancing the organization through high quality brainstorming sessions, we end up with cooler talk that sounds like this: “I could have told her that this wouldn’t work but then that would have been her idea too.”
The Idea Propagation Problem Remedy
Look to give credit to what people say and think. Too often, credit is reserved for actions and outcomes. The remedy is to honor words and ideas. Eventually, what you want to build is a learning culture. Organizational learning is a concept that leaders don’t initiate often enough. In a learning culture, people are more apt to work together to solve problems because they like new problems better than persistent ones. For this to happen, leaders have to give credit to innovative thinking, out-of-the-box idea sharing, and risk-taking. Instead of focusing on achievement, we have to put our attention on the process.
Bad Boss Behavior #4: Taking Credit for Success
Giving credit where credit is due is a very rewarding habit to form. Its rewards are inestimable. ~ Loretta Young
One way to view these bad boss behaviors is through the lens of vices. They are weaknesses not only in leadership but as human behaviors–they appear when we fall short of doing the very best we can. Uncontrolled fear and worry leads to micromanaging the same way as insecurity leads to withholding credit just like our lack of systems results in an information bottleneck.
What we have found to be thematically true about the greatest leaders who have come through our school leadership training series is that they fix a number of their bad boss behaviors by spending more time than average leaders in celebration mode. They’ve learned that the greatest ways to lift any organization, especially a school, is through praise and recognition. Take a look at the following Gallup poll research:
Our latest analysis, which includes more than 10,000 business units and more than 30 industries, has found that individuals who receive regular recognition and praise:
- increase their individual productivity
- increase engagement among their colleagues
- are more likely to stay with their organization
- receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers
- have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job
But, if the research is so clear, why don’t leaders do this more often? The reasons are endless, but we’ve discovered that it bowls down to scarcity thinking. Stephen Covey, in his 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, first coined this idea where people think in shortages rather than abundance. Similar to the Idea Propagations Problem, scarcity thinking brings leaders down the path where any good news about new supports in place or success stories shared are accumulated as being credited to the leader rather than the people who pushed the work in the first place.
Of course, in the end, it’s always the leader who truly brings the vision to fruition. It’s her eye on the people and programs, innovation, and future-forward mindset that drives the ultimate success. But, it’s all too easy for leaders to fall into the trap set by their egos. Rather than celebrating others and praising the people they serve, they end up believing that the success is theirs to have, not the team’s or individuals who are truly making it work.
And, although it may seem like the solution to this bad boss behavior is simply to start praising and recognizing others more often, the truth is that it’s deeper than that. It includes the way we use our language about the team and much more.
The Scarcity Thinking Remedy
If you glossed over the Loretta Young quote, take a moment and reread it slowly: “Giving credit where credit is due is a very rewarding habit to form.” The key word is habit. For habits to form, we need to be intentional. Here are three keys ways to build your giving-credit-muscle:
- Reduce “I” from your vocabulary and begin saying “we” more often. No leader accomplishes greatness alone and this simple change helps us to communicate that we’re on a team, not just that we lead one.
- Start every meeting with gratitude by recognizing the people at that meeting and by allowing them to recognize each other. This should be genuine but not necessarily huge accomplishments. Great schools are built on the small and mundane things that have to be done to perfection.
- When you’re out and about, lift the people on your team who aren’t around when a success or new support has been put in place. As the leader, we might be thanked for something that really was the contribution of someone on the team. When that happens, we ought to pause and say, “yes, thanks to [insert name], we were able to get the upgrades we needed in this area.”
Bad Boss Behavior #5: Using Relationships to Leverage Power
People with leverage have power over those who don’t. ~ Robert Kiyosaki
The bad boss behavior that we abhor the most is using relationships to leverage power. Manipulation is not leadership and ultimately does not build a successful long-term organization. We are not suggesting that leverage alone is bad or that the power of relationships should be overlooked. In fact, both are qualities that every leader can use for the betterment of their organization and people.
We firmly believe in investing in others, seeking a competitive edge, and developing a strong inter-connectedness among people. These should be genuine pursuits to lift others and the organization. What we are referring to here is when individuals seek personal notoriety and gain through the active manipulation of others. Again, we link many of these bad behaviors to vices. The allure of success and fame is all too enticing.
We are not standing on a moral high ground here or condemning those who have fallen prey to this trap, we’re merely pointing out that power is seductive. And the longer we have and the higher we climb the less likely it is that we can see what it has done to us. As Bob Rosen writes in the The Healthy Leader, there is an abuse of power that can take hold of us, a belief of superiority that can trap our thinking.
The challenge, though, is that many leaders don’t think this way in the beginning. Yes, there are some who are hubris, arrogant, and tyrannical from the start. But we are talking about individuals who have done the work, put in the time, genuinely care about the company, and, yet, they end up having bad boss behaviors anyway.
The fact is that many people who rise within an organization are terrified of failure and losing the power they’ve obtained. This fear creates an insular attempt to protect themselves, to exclude others, and to use relationships as a means of control. Leaders who leverage relationships as power aren’t building them as a genuine connection with others; they do so to gain authority and even access to information that they might not have otherwise garnered alone. You might be thinking that this is an impossible one to remedy because leaders who suffer from this bad boss behavior aren’t always aware that they use relationships to wield their power. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The Seduction of Power Remedy
Becoming seduction proof is probably impossible, but we do believe in a few ways that leaders can remedy their unhealthy use of relationships as an advantage over others:
- First, avoid surrounding yourself with sycophants. Leaders must have people around them who can be honest and truthful with them without fear of repercussions. In high pressure situations, where investors and boards want results, a leader needs a trusted advisory group that can use candor about everything.
- Second, put your values and principles in check. Make sure that they are anchored and set in place prior to any new endeavor and especially during turmoil. Check out our post about growing through the grind to reflect on the vision you set for yourself. Without a clear picture of who we want to be, we can end up behaving in ways that don’t match our true intentions.
- Third, listen to the people who you trust the most. Leaders who build relationships for power are so seduced by the advantage that they think they have that they end up building relationships with the wrong people. Ask yourself if you truly trust the source or if you’re only trying to gain control.
The Need for School Leadership Training
Throughout the month we are going to dive into this concept so that you are more fully prepared to lead with excellence. Take a few minutes and reflect on the 5 bad boss behaviors and determine which one(s) you need to work on first. This is why it’s so important that school leaders get the proper training they deserve. After identifying the one that you need to work on most, find a training that will help to satisfy your need to develop as a leader.
#1: Micromanaging Your Team
#2: Withholding Information from Others
#3: Stealing Great Ideas
#4: Taking Credit for Supports or Success
#5: Using Relationships to Leverage Power
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