Why are there so many bad bosses?

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“Boss” is a loaded term for many people, but I think it’s the best term to describe a person who is responsible for the performance and care of a group. It’s a job. Many of the people who have that job don’t seem to be doing it very well.

How Many Bad Bosses Are There?

Popular wisdom has it that there are an awful lot of bad bosses. It’s hard to have a conversation about life at work without hearing at least a few bad boss stories. Alas, research supports the popular wisdom.

Here’s one example. In 2008, psychologist Dr. Gordon Curphy conducted an internet survey of 245 employed adults. He asked them how many bosses they’d had and how many of those bosses they’d want to work for again. Survey participants said that only 38 percent of their bosses were that good.

That’s research, but it’s not exactly scientific. So, let’s look at something else. Researchers Joyce Hogan, Robert Hogan, and Robert B. Kaiser reviewed 12 studies published in peer reviewed journals between 1985 and 2005 to assess the percentage of management failure. The failure rates in the 12 studies ranged from 30 percent to 60 percent. The average was about 50 percent. Let’s put that in plain English.

If you work for a boss, you’ve got about an even chance of working for a decent one. That doesn’t mean that the “failures” were all awful, abusive bosses. It does mean that the teams they led were not likely to be effective and the members of those teams were not likely to be supported. Those aren’t the kind of results to work for.

Imagine some guy looking at himself in the mirror as he shaves in the morning. He thinks to himself, “I’m going to be an awful boss today and have a great time doing it!”

Not likely, is it? Nobody sets out to be a bad boss any more than they set out to be a bad parent or a poor teacher. So, why are there so many bad bosses? I think the reasons fall into two groups: system issues and personal issues.

How Our Systems Create Bad Bosses

Companies don’t mean to do it, but many of our basic systems almost guarantee that we’re going to have a significant number of poor-performing bosses. That begins when we select people for the job.

We tend to promote people based on their performance in another job rather than their aptitude for the specific work of being a boss. Or we assume that intelligence is enough and promote smart people because we think they’ll be able to figure it out.

To make matters worse, we make the move from individual contributor to boss a “promotion.” It means more money and, usually, more prestige. So, people who might not want to do the job otherwise become a boss so they’ll do better financially. And, once we “promote” a person to a boss’s job, we make it almost impossible for him or her to return to individual contributor status.

In too many cases, we supervise bosses poorly. We reward them for making their numbers, but often not for helping their people grow and develop. So, guess what? Bosses spend their time trying to make their numbers at almost any cost and ignore the developmental aspects of their job.

We don’t support bosses well, either, especially in the most critical time. That time is when they’re making the transition from individual contributor to boss. Instead of providing peer support, training, and coaching for the one-and-a-half to two years it will take for a new boss to learn the job, we make due with some multi-day training and exhortations to do well.

Those are just a few ways that our systems work to create too many bad bosses. Some of the bosses have individual problems, too.

Personal Issues

If you want to learn to do any job well, you need a robust mental model of what good performance looks like. Too many new bosses don’t have that. Because we don’t help them develop that model, they make do with what they have.

If they think that a good boss is “bossy,” then that’s how they act. If they think good bosses are everybody’s friend, that’s how they act. If they think that a good boss has all the answers, they won’t admit what they don’t know.

First bosses play a critical role here. If their first boss was good, they’ve got a better shot at becoming a good boss themselves.

Failing the experience of a good boss, a new boss can get guidance from role models and mentors. The problem is that many new bosses don’t know how to develop good role models or acquire good mentors.

Bottom Line

Probably half the bosses out there aren’t doing a good job. If we want to change that, we need to change the way we select, train, and support bosses, especially during their critical transition from individual contributor to boss. We need to help new bosses develop healthy and robust mental models of what good supervision looks like and teach them how to choose role models and acquire mentors that will help them grow.

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