Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The worst boss in the world

Most people want to bitch about their boss at some point. Some people are in the unfortunate position of having a boss who makes every day a misery. The lucky few have a boss who is an inspiration and makes their job a pleasure. So if I'm going to write about the qualities of a boss I could approach it from a positive angle ("be like this") or a negative angle ("don't be like this").

I'm going negative - it's more fun.

My experience of working in a specialised field like IT is that the more effort an individual has put in to reach their position (i.e. the amount of training and/or experience they have) the less tolerant they are of others who perform their role poorly. In short, I've never heard anyone complain more about their boss than IT workers do. If I was being completely fair I'd also go into some detail about what makes a bad IT worker. In fact, I may do that in another post. But today is all about the catharsis of ripping on bad bosses.

Thankfully, bosses who indulge in criminal abuse of their staff are few and far between. Physical abuse and/or threats, intimidation, sexual harassment, racism... any boss at this end of the spectrum deserves jail time. I remember reading about one boss in the public service in Australia who was eventually fired after one of the staff recorded one of his abuse sessions (apparently this boss didn't realise many laptops have built-in video cameras).

He was recorded trying to bully an employee into accepting responsibility for a speeding fine he (the boss) had incurred. The boss initially justified his demand by saying he'd lose his license if he got another speeding infringement and refusing to help him out was disloyal. When the staff member refused to sign a statement saying she was driving the car when it was caught on a speed camera, the boss commenced screaming, made several disparaging comments about the worker's sexual preferences and promised her she'd lose her job. It didn't quite work out the way he wanted.

The scariest boss I ever had ran a strip club where I was working. Yes, I worked in a strip club. No I wasn't a stripper. Shut the hell up, I could so have earned a living as a stripper if I had wanted to. If you pissed this bloke off, he conducted a "business meeting" to review your transgression with a baseball bat sitting on his desk. I shit you not. This and his reputed Mob connections eventually compelled me to run screaming for the hills.

So, ignoring outright criminal behaviour, here is my guide to being the worst boss in the world:

Be inconsistent I've worked in sweatshop environments that were tolerable because there were no illusions. We knew what to expect every day and we knew what we were being paid to endure it. Any time this wasn't acceptable we could (and did) bail. The good days in an inconsistent workplace aren't good enough to compensate for the constant fear that it's going to be a bad day.

Criticise publicly and give no praise at all Everybody screws up sometimes but if your goal is to actually get better performance from people, a private discussion works far better than public humiliation. Some people even do well sometimes. Never underestimate the positive impact of publicly praising someone, particularly when they've done something well that may not be particularly high profile.

Refuse to accept responsibility More than once I've followed a manager's instructions explicitly and been told later I'd done the wrong thing. My worst ever boss was a chronic offender in this area, to the point where I always preserved a paper trail to prove I was following her instructions. Even when presented with this evidence she refused to accept responsibility.

Avoid making decisions This is a classic bad manager tactic - don't make any decisions, don't give any directions then you can't possibly blamed when something goes wrong, right? Maybe you'll get away with it in some workplaces but this lack of leadership is a recipe for disaster. Have the guts to do your job - you know, be the boss.

Don't defend your team It isn't the boss's job to make excuses for incompetence but it is the boss's job to represent the team's best interests. Too often I've seen bosses reflexively blame their team for situations that weren't the team's fault. This type of boss seems to think if they blame someone else they don't have to defend themselves. This is a close cousin to:

Claim credit and apportion blame All too often I've been on an IT team where we started to think we were invisible. We never had any positive feedback from senior management because our direct boss would place themselves between us and management meaning we were never recognised for good work. Then something would go wrong and we would suddenly become visible.

Be ignorant and proud of it I'm not one of those people who think IT bosses have to be technical geniuses - in fact it's often counter-productive if they're too deeply immersed in the technology. But when you have resources that know more than you, don't belittle them for it. Recognise the value of their expertise.

Be a slave to "the rules" I'm usually a fan of a disciplined and consistent approach to process. But if someone comes up with a better alternative or is able to show where an existing process won't work... LISTEN! Saying "that's how we always do things" doesn't cut it. Do something because it's the right thing to do, not because "it's the rules".

There are probably a thousand more ways to be a bad boss. I have a suspicion I may be hearing about a few in the comments.

No comments: