What You Learn from a Terrible Boss


by Natasha Hatherall-Shawe


Horrible bosses, it’s not just a film, but a rite of passage we all seemingly have to experience. A 2017 study showed that 44% of professionals had quit their job primarily because of their boss, so the price of bad management to businesses is real and high. Whilst companies and HR, in general, have a lot to catch up on, what can we learn from an experience with a terrible boss? When it comes to our careers and leadership skills, quite a lot as it happens.


Having lived the horror of a couple of truly terrible line managers in my career to date (15 years on I still shudder at the mention of some of them and I’d likely dive in a bush or around a corner if I saw one), I have come to the conclusion that you really can learn from those who are not good at their job and managing others, because then you can focus on the exact opposite behaviour to those in your charge.


Here's what you can learn from bad bosses:


A terrible boss helps you learn what not to do (and what to do!)

Very few of us are born managers or leaders and so we have to learn somewhere and analysing what you didn’t like or find motivating in a leader yourself is a good place to start. As with everything in life we learn from seeing and doing. So, write down all the things that were demotivating or upset you and keep that in mind and adopt it into your own management style as what not to do. Of course, we’re not all the same and what motivates one person may not be the same as what motivates another, so there are always anomalies, and we need to adapt situation to situation and person to person, but you get the point – take note of what you didn’t like in your bosses and make sure it’s not in your way of management. Ultimately your bosses will help you define your own personal management style.


Great conflict resolution skills!

Another from the ‘what not to do’ file – hopeless managers usually either shy away from ‘grown up’ conversations that can be perceived as conflict, delegate to other people to manage (literally hide) or use it as an ego trip and a lesson of how not to communicate. As above, take from this the opposite. Treat people like the grown-up humans they are, respect privacy, and yes, pride. Nobody should be humiliated in front of colleagues or peers, arm yourself with facts, not opinions, strip all emotion from the conversation and handle the situation with compassion, logic and common sense.


Loyalty breeds loyalty

If you want and expect loyalty from others, then you need to be loyal to them. Nepotism or ‘cliques’ within a workplace are demotivating for those not within them. Ultimately your own staff and colleagues are your ride or dies – a successful leader or manager will absolutely have your back in situations with clients or suppliers – workplace conflict is another story. This also manifests itself when it comes to promotions, bonuses and rewards. In a busy post-pandemic market, treating your staff properly and running your team well will lead to retention and better performance and that cannot be underestimated at the moment. Loyalty definitely works both ways.


Learn more about human behaviour

Most rubbish bosses are not necessarily horrible people. Bad decisions are usually made via lack of experience, fear of judgement or their own superiors being hopeless too. Working for difficult people let me see close-up how fear hurts our judgment and decision-making. Lousy bosses are usually afraid - they are afraid of failing in their job. They are afraid of anything that looks like a threat to their authority or position. In the region, we often see inexperienced people in positions of authority they are genuinely not qualified or equipped for. It’s not even about age - sometimes even a very young person can scare a fearful manager perhaps it has happened to you! By observing people and their patterns of behaviour, we can really learn a lot.


Leadership takes time and changes over time

One of the things that defines poor leadership right to the core is that it's rushed and chaotic, and a little random. The person trying to lead a small graphics group doesn't explain things adequately so no one knows what to do, only that it is needed now. The marketing director talks way too fast and is always going to the next meeting. This kind of chaotic leadership is different to micro management but is equally frustrating. You get a chance here to actually step in to ‘help’ and carve yourself your own calm – try to forge a discussion around this, and you might find the ‘terrible boss’ is actually thankful and open to suggestions. Or not. There is a lot to be said for ‘messy action’ in getting things done on a short deadline, but as a perpetual cycle it is exhausting and whilst wheels seem to be constantly spinning, nobody actually gets anywhere.



Helps improve your communication skills

I genuinely think bad management almost always comes down to bad or non-existent communication skills. Closed book types, or secretive or plain too chaotic and distracted to disseminate information properly can kill a team and productivity. If you have the self-awareness that these people clearly lack, you will be able to see where the gaps are, how to speak to people to get the best out of them, how to increase productivity with clear information sharing, giving clear instructions, praising good work and having difficult conversations and feedback. If your terrible boss does none of these things, at least you will recognise that they should be done and think about how you would handle it in a supervisory role.


Just to end on a positive, as I always like to keep it positive and constructive, just how you can learn from a terrible boss, you can learn oooodles from a fantastic one too – so watch and learn! Terrible bosses will ultimately teach you most of the life lessons you need, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones – so we have to be thankful for that, and the opportunity for some great stories you’ll be telling for a lifetime, trust me!