5 Good Lessons from Bad Bosses

UPDATED: September 26, 2022
PUBLISHED: September 22, 2022
5 Good Lessons from Bad Bosses

Everyone’s had one. Maybe it was a college kid home for the summer who gave you the worst lifeguard shifts at the pool, or a team lead who made you stay late on Christmas Eve, then took the credit for your work. If you’ve had a 9-to-5, chances are you’ve encountered one of the Bill Lumbergs, Miranda Priestlys or Michael Scotts of the world, the archetypal bad bosses ranging from truly nightmarish to unfortunately incompetent.

There are a lot of them out there. A meta-analysis on leadership co-authored by psychologist and leadership consultant Robert Hogan showed that “65%– 75% of the employees in any given organization report that the worst aspect of their job is their immediate boss.”

Being a 20-something navigating the early stages of my career, I think it’s fairly natural that work is a common topic of conversation—my friends are all in a similar postgraduate, pre-white picket fence stage in life where most of our time and energy is focused on our jobs. By now most of us have encountered that boss. The bully, the blamer, the manipulator, etc. We share war stories over happy hours, at backyard barbecues and sometimes via an international phone call if need be.

If you’re one of the blessed few who have only experienced the type of boss that encourages long lunches and living your best life, knock on wood and keep on doing whatever it is that’s scored you such excellent karma.

I’m lucky. My anecdotes are well-rehearsed by now, told with a levity that comes only with time, enough to take the sting off the most cringe-worthy memories. They largely revolve around my first job out of college, a “sink or swim” situation where my boss’s management style was poor at best and unprofessional at worst, that even years later still stirs the occasional moment of self-doubt.

In an effort to sound gracefully diplomatic during a grad school interview, I found myself referencing that particular experience in terms of “teachable moments,” a buzzy phrase I’d never used before in my life that suddenly made a lot of sense. I embraced the idea of the silver lining, and while I only say it out loud accompanied by a healthy dose of irony, it makes me feel a little less like losing it when a situation is less than ideal.

In an equally valiant effort not to be the friend preaching about “teachable moments” while they’re supposed to be commiserating and getting the bartender to bring another round, I keep the self-help jargon largely to myself. But even if it’s not explicitly stated, most of my friends’ and colleagues’ stories end with the same takeaway: I don’t ever want to be that person. In cases like these, a bad boss can teach just as much, if not more, than a great one about what you should avoid doing.

1. Hiding from responsibility

My boss’s nonexistent interpersonal communication skills and mastery of passive aggression made her ill-suited for a job in, well, communications. She regularly avoided all forms of interaction with her team, holing herself up in her office without talking to anyone except during meetings. Whenever she did pay attention to anyone, it was usually to criticize and patronize one particular co-worker, whom she would blame for her own mistakes.

Teachable moment: Your team will know if you don’t want to be there, or if you’re not interested in being a strong leader. When it comes to leadership and maximizing the potential of your team, a healthy, collaborative environment is always going to be more effective than isolation or condescension.

2. Playing favorites

I worked very well with one of my first managers, but I was definitely one of her favorites. We would go to long lunches, she wouldn’t question if I left early, and she would share office gossip that I knew was unprofessional. The obvious favoritism created tension on the team between her “favorites” and those who weren’t treated in the same way.

Teachable moment: I might have preferences within my team, but I’m more discreet. I recognize that there will be individuals I prefer to work and engage with. But I do my best to not let that interfere with judgments, evaluations or daily activities.

3. Shifting the blame

I had a manager who would purposefully send altered email summaries of conversations to avoid any blame for issues in the office. My co-workers and I began to document conversations ourselves and eventually had to speak directly with the manager’s supervisor to deal with the situation.

Teachable moment: Thorough documentation can save your job (I keep all correspondence, including texts, in organized folders), and if you feel like circumstances warrant it, consider reaching out to upper management for help.

4. Lacking leadership

My boss’s lackluster interest in my projects and work made me realize I needed to manage myself. He might be the boss on paper, but I had to take control organizing my projects and meeting the deadlines I set for myself.

Teachable moment: Some supervisors have no interest in managing, and you have to learn to manage yourself. Occasionally, this even involves managing them to some extent.

5. Ignoring feedback

For the first year, my manager was like a best friend to me. I loved going to work until I was promoted into a management position, which didn’t come naturally to me. I felt unsuccessful for the first time in my life. Our relationship disintegrated the moment I requested formal training—she told me that I didn’t need training, and every manager at the company just learned by “doing.” I felt ignored and devalued, and I never trusted her again.

Teachable moment: That was an acutely lonely moment that I’ve never wanted any of my team members to experience. I work hard to hold myself accountable to my team’s feedback and provide as much enrichment as possible—I believe the greatest feeling of validation comes from truly being heard.

This article was published in July 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She spends off-hours scouting new restaurants and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.