A Word on “Bad Bosses”

I recently read an article entitled “The Value of Working for a Bad Boss” and posted it on Facebook and Twitter, asking for reactions.  Not surprisingly, there were many thoughts—seems like this topic resonates with quite a few folks!

In Higher Education, I believe in a few general guiding principles when it comes to supervision.

1)      The most challenging part of our jobs is leading and managing people: We do not sell insurance.  We are not trading stocks.  We are investing in students, navigating political environments and adding value to the communities in which we live.  This requires more time and investment in people than in the corporate world.   As we move up, our job scope may widen, thus limiting the time we can devote to supervision, however I encourage you to consider how this can always be at the center of our work.  Investment in people has a trickle-down effect.  Role model this for your staff.  Make 1-1 meetings a priority, ask about their professional development goals and foster an environment that values their unique contribution.


2)      Know What a “Bad Boss” Looks Like for You: Although there may be some universal concerns about a person who is dishonest, lacks integrity, etc., we all have our own unique needs. Decide what kind of person you seek to work for.  You may desire a calm, logical person.  Others may prefer an extroverted, passionate change-agent.  Know what you struggle with in a supervisor and be honest with them about what you need.


3)      Do your “homework” on your potential boss before accepting any new position: The most important relationship you will develop at work is with your supervisor.  Be sure to talk candidly with others who have been/currently are supervised by him/her so that you have a clear picture of how they lead, what their priorities are and how you might be able to contribute to advancing their goals.  Oftentimes, people don’t leave jobs, they leave their manager.


4)      Know Your Options: If a new supervisor joins your team and you are struggling to work with them, what should you do?  Having a new boss can significantly alter your professional experience—sometimes for the better, sometimes to the detriment of your work environment.  It is important to assess if this is a workable situation.  Know that you always have three options: 1) Adapt to the new changes, 2) Try to preserve your current ways of operating within the department (which may or may not work) or 3) Leave with grace.   Too many people stay beyond their prime because they didn’t realize their own expiration date.  New bosses have every right to make changes as they see fit—and you have every right to walk away.


5)      Assess the Good That Can Result from Working with a “Bad Boss”: The author of this article states “They are more like a low-grade headache. You learn to live with them. Besides, if you quit, you’ll miss some important lessons that will help you become a better leader.” This is all about perspective.  Do you have a friend who occasionally drives you nuts but you keep them around because you know they add a unique perspective to your life?  It’s the same concept.  Figure out what you can learn from that person—both the good and the bad, and your view of them may alter.


6)      Figure Out What Your Boss Needs from a Supervisee:  Too often we focus on what our supervisor isn’t doing for us, without asking what we are doing for them.  Consider how you can help your supervisor advance their goals.  This can be an incentive for them to help you achieve your objectives, as well.  Show that you are indispensable to the team—and to them—every single day!


What universal truths do you have about supervision? What tips do you have for managing supervisory challenges? Share them here!


Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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11 Responses to A Word on “Bad Bosses”

  1. Fabulous, well-written post (as always) AMK. I appreciate the ways in which you ask readers to reflect on their own needs and stress the importance/unique realm of our work. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great job! I think your 6th point is an important one, as sometimes it’s not the boss who is bad, but actually it’s that we haven’t yet learned how to be a good employee. If we’ve never had someone who held us to standards or really held us accountable when we didn’t meet expectations, then we might think the boss is being “bad” when really our expectations of what a good boss should be aren’t realistic.

  3. Very timely post, Ann Marie. I’ve been struggling with these thoughts for some time, and this post has given me a lot to consider.

    A tip I’d like to share: Along with “doing your homework” and finding out what it is like to work for someone, do the same about the culture of the institution. Experience has taught me that I need to work in an innovative, progressive environment. A place that doesn’t value that is not a good fit for me. I have also learned that I need to work with (for) someone that supports my career goals and values the contribution I make.

    Another tip, more financially related, but it ties in with this as well. Strive to save enough money (enough to see you through for a few months) that if you find yourself in a toxic work environment, you can walk away from it without feeling stressed about where the next pay cheque will come from. Being financially reliant on a workplace is a very difficult situation to be in, although one that many of us find ourselves in (especially with the economy being the way that it is right now).

    • Thanks Kate! Someone once told me to create a “go to hell” fund just in case I ever needed to leave a job ASAP. 🙂

      • Sean Cook says:

        I tell people that all the time, but I use a different phrase. Always had this fund. Having one gives you the confidence to acknowledge each day that going to work is a choice. It was incredibly freeing to have this.

  4. Sean Cook says:

    Hi AnnMarie,

    I really appreciate your perspectives on this. I think the most important things to think about are how you think about and share what you need with a boss, and that you meet them first as a human being and second as a supervisor.

    I’ve both had bad bosses and been one, and in thinking about those situations, I realized that the only really bad bosses I had were the ones who wouldn’t listen to me and try to understand the best way to work with me. And the times I failed worst as a boss were those when I was too proud or stubborn to really listen to my staff.

    I had a shift in my thinking after a particularly difficult year as a supervisor, and the next year, I started off by doing my best to create an environment where people shared their concerns respectfully and where each person was expected to take ownership of their own issues and to admit their parts in solving issues that came up. I spent more time with staff talking about their goals and development, asking for feedback, and when appropriate, owning up to my part in misunderstandings, conflict, or confusion. It was so much healthier for me and for my staff.

    I encourage each of us to be honest with ourselves and others about what we need, and to listen to others (the boss included) about theirs.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Sean, thanks for reading–I appreciate your honest, personal story. Thanks for sharing! Supervision is a work in progress for all of us. It’s about recognizing the importance of working on it, too!

  5. Amy Schuckman says:

    I recently just started reading your blog and have loved the entries about starting in a new position. I just shared this entry with some of my supervisees that are job searching and will encourage them to really reflect on these points when considering their next step. Even though they are ready to move on both professional and personally, I want to support them in making well informed choices about their future.

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