Why Are There So Many Bad Bosses?

UPDATED: October 18, 2015
PUBLISHED: July 7, 2015

Have you ever noticed this about the way most American companies select people to manage others? It doesn’t make a lick of sense.

They take the most skilled employees and tell them, “Congratulations! You’re great at this! So instead of doing it, you’re now going to supervise others who aren’t nearly as talented. Sure, you may not be good at supervising people, because it requires a totally different skill set than the one you’ve mastered, but this is the only way to grow in the company, so… good luck, boss!”

It’s a little wacky, is what we’re saying. And that wackiness may explain this: When you ask people—friends, associates, strangers—for an interesting boss anecdote, very few start with a positive one. Most of us have had a boss who we thought might be, you know, a high-functioning sociopath. Far fewer can say we ever felt truly inspired by a boss. “Companies often choose the wrong people,” says Linda A. Hill, Ph.D., professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the co-author of Being the Boss. “The criteria for what makes someone a really good producer, salesperson or researcher may not be the criteria that make a good leader.”

Complicated politics are involved, too. “We live in organizations that are political,” says Deborah Ancona, faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center. “Negativity comes out of that, things like, ‘I did the work, and he got the credit.’ That often pushes people to self-promotion rather than team promotion.”

And while we all may enjoy making fun of the Michael Scotts we have known over the years, these bad bosses are no laughing matter: An oft-cited Gallup study revealed that a gloomy 30 percent of Americans actually feel engaged at work, while nearly 20 percent feel “actively disengaged” (which is totally an oxymoron, but give them a break; they’re depressed). Research has told us that people’s ideas and assumptions about leadership are shaped as early as their first jobs, so if someone forms a bad habit at the ice cream shop where he worked in high school, by the time he’s promoted to senior manager, he’d have had those same foibles for years.

All of which begs the question: Are there really that many more terrible bosses than good ones? The answer: yeah, probably.

“It’s like when you’re cooking,” says Carolyn Goerner, Ph.D., a professor of management at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “When it goes really well, you say, Mmm, that was good. You don’t really get excited about it. But when it’s really, really horrible, you remember it. The really good bosses who change people and make them better are simply few and far between. Most of the time bosses are just below average, so you just find yourself going day to day without their making much of a difference.”

And, of course, there’s the problem noted earlier. “Say you’re dealing with the best tax accountant in the world,” Goerner says. “They can cite federal tax code at parties. So people say, ‘You’re such a good tax accountant that we’re going to let you supervise other tax accountants and take you away from the thing you’re good at.’ ” In other words, pull that tax-code-citing expert (who probably doesn’t get invited back to many parties) out of his comfort zone, plant him in a supervisory position for which he might not be prepared and might not even have the interpersonal skills or personality, and assign him quarterly goals.

“In some instances,” Goerner says, “We’re taking people who are incredibly proficient technically and then promoting them to a level of incompetence.”

But all this may be missing a bright side, Ancona says. “When we’ve asked people about their development as leaders, we’ve found that people seem to learn more from negative role models than positive ones. People say, Wow, well, this is what I don’t want to do, who I don’t want to be.”

For her part, Goerner is warming to the idea of teaching management skills to the technically gifted. “The idea is that we take people we know have high potential and teach them traditional MBA classes—what it means to think strategically, deal with your assets in a way that can get you good ROI.” The catch, of course, is that it’s easier to teach technical skills than management prowess or, in some cases, a decent personality.

Some aspects of being a good manager can be honed via a mentor. Communication competence can be taught. Planning ability and listening skills can be taught. “You can help people read emotions,” Ancona says. “You can teach them to be more visionary, to be more critical, to pay closer attention.” But self-confidence, likability and the willingness to trust employees aren’t easily learned. “I wish I knew the secret sauce,” Goerner says. “You either have it or you don’t.”

Hopefully your boss has it. Or if you’re a boss, hopefully you do. And if you’re running the show, hopefully you have the stones to replace one of your poor supervisors with a great one. Great management is absolutely vital: A 2012 study by the consulting company Towers Watson found that feeling cared for by one’s supervisor affected employees’ trust in leadership more than anything else that supervisor did, and that employees who had supportive supervisors reported feeling 67 percent more engaged than their counterparts.

In any event, dealing with a screwy boss is a lot like dealing with a screwy anyone. And there are some really good bosses out there. You just might not hear about them as much.

“Leadership is personal,” Ancona says. “There’s no single way of leading, no silver bullet. Every person has his or her own way. We’re all incomplete. We can’t be perfect at everything. So if you’re someone’s boss, the trick is finding out what you’re really good at and what you need to ramp up on, and getting better at both.”

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.