How to Tell a Bad Boss From a Good Boss

Updated on May 13, 2020
Jerry Cornelius profile image

In a long and varied career, I have spent a couple of decades in sales, sales training, sales management, and running my own businesses.

Bad boss or good boss: Which is yours?
Bad boss or good boss: Which is yours? | Source

Bad Bosses vs Good Bosses

If you have moved around a lot within your career, you have probably come across a bad boss (no, don’t think about it!), and if you have been lucky, a good one. But if you are new to the world of work or haven’t moved around a lot in your career, maybe your ‘bad boss/good boss’ radar isn’t fully tuned in. This article gives you some of the warning signs to look out for when deciding if your present or future boss is the devil in disguise or on the side of the angels.

Bad bosses often appear serene and in control, but secretly they are thrashing away beneath the surface in a barely controlled panic.
Bad bosses often appear serene and in control, but secretly they are thrashing away beneath the surface in a barely controlled panic. | Source

Bad Bosses Are Swans

Yep, bad bosses are often swans. A swan is someone who appears serene, calm and in control, but secretly they are thrashing away beneath the surface in a barely controlled panic. A bad boss will always ensure they look organised and in control, especially in front of their boss. Image is vitally important to them—and they often desperately want to appear to be a good boss. But this image of control and assurance is just that—an image, a façade.

Bad bosses are often unorganised, reactive and have poor forward planning skills—which keeps them in an almost constant fire-fighting mode, which causes stress and tension and which they hide in front of their immediate boss. But when that tension bubbles to the surface, who gets the brunt of it? Yep, you do. This can manifest in the form of seemingly random mood swings, ‘urgent’ tasks that need to be done ‘now’ or even ‘emergency’ team meetings at short notice.

Good Bosses Are Truly Calm and in Control

Good bosses, by contrast, are the opposite of swans. A good boss is often a good strategic planner. They may appear swan-like, having a calm and controlled personality, but unlike their evil counterparts, they are actually calm and in control and are not just putting on a show.

Bad Bosses Give Orders

Bad bosses give orders. Now, you may initially think, "What is wrong with that, that is their job, they are, after all, managers?" In a way you are correct; all managers have to give orders, but bad bosses often give them badly.

Work and life in general is based around communication and human interaction. A bad boss will often ‘issue’ orders without pre-amble or explanation—simply expecting to be obeyed because of the ‘respect’ he or she believes they deserve in their role. However, people management and humans are complicated – the majority of people simply do not like taking orders – they take offence, find it rude and it builds resentment. Down the line this will make for unhappy subordinates. Does a bad boss care? Not really, as long as they achieve their aims and maintain their image of ‘cool and collected’ in front of their boss, they will ignore the grumblings from their team.

Good Bosses Use a Coaching Approach

Good bosses also give orders, but they take a different approach. With a good boss it’s all about coaching and getting ‘buy-in’. When a good boss has to get a team member to do something, rather than issuing a direct order, they will often use a coaching approach. This might include explaining the nature of the problem that has made the order necessary. Discussing the potential options, asking for opinions, and narrowing down to what needs to be done (the order).

If this is done well, it is often the team member who comes up with the idea with what needs to be done (the order), it then becomes ‘their idea’—and since it is their idea, they are keen to follow through. This is known as ‘buy-in’. Remember, humans do not like following orders and as a result orders often do not get followed, but if someone has ‘bought into’ an order because they see it essentially as their idea there is a much greater chance of the order being followed through.

You may think that the good boss approach to this problem is long winded, but the extra time and care a good boss takes giving orders means in the long run he has a happier team that follow orders quickly and effectively. The bad boss on the other hand, breeds resentment within his team over the long term and is unlikely to get the results he was hoping for in the short term.

Who is pulling the strings?
Who is pulling the strings? | Source

Bad Bosses Want Less-Intelligent Employees They Can Manipulate

When bad bosses interview for new team members, they are often looking for people that they can manipulate easily and that they perceive as less intelligent than themselves (again, so they can manipulate them). If you don’t consider yourself easy to manipulate or less intelligent, then you are unlikely to be employed by a bad boss—time to celebrate, you’ve had a lucky escape.

Bad bosses secretly want an easy life (and are sometimes lazy), so they figure that being surrounded by ‘Yes’ men or women will make their work life easier and allow them to issue orders without any ‘push-back’. The other reason bad bosses want employees that they perceive as less intelligent, is they see them as a threat, they don’t want someone, who could, down the line take their job.

Good Bosses Want Smart Employees

Good bosses, however, are looking for smart intelligent people to join their team, but bizarrely often for the same reason: they want an easier (or should I say smoother) work life. The good boss knows that by employing smart people, they are likely to take on positive coaching better, think their way out of problems themselves and come up with their own solutions to issues. They will be pro-active and are likely to be more trustworthy when they are given more autonomy.

What if the good boss employs someone who is smarter than him—so what, if the new team player soars up through the ranks of organisation then the good boss will get some of that reflected glory. And If the new team member eventually becomes the good boss’s boss, then if you are that good boss, it is way better to have your boss trained, mentored and coached by you on the way up than to have a random (and possibly bad) boss foisted on you in the future.

Is your boss playing the favourite game?
Is your boss playing the favourite game? | Source

Bad Bosses Play Favourites

Bad bosses nearly always have a favourite team member, often someone who meets their criteria of ‘malleable’ and perceived as not as smart as they are. Every Batman needs his Robin. The bad boss’s favourite is often drawn into the boss’s confidence, given information that the other team members are not privy to and generally made to feel important.

Why does the bad boss need a favourite? Well, there are several reasons.

  • First of all he needs a spy in the team, someone who can gather information and gossip from the team (especially about himself), he can’t do it himself. A bad boss is usually aware he is not popular and as such the team doesn’t trust him.
  • Secondly, he needs a side-kick to do his dirty work. Instead of giving a direct order to his team he may ask his favourite to do it therefore deflecting any resentment away from himself.
  • Lastly, the favourite is there to take a hit for him, or to take the blame for something that has gone wrong. Again, this is deflection, the bad boss avoids the blame, and although the favourite gets the blame, he often does it willingly as he perceives his standing with his boss is enhanced.

Good Bosses Avoid Favouritism

Playing favourites is something good bosses do not do. Don’t get me wrong they may have favourites, after all they are human, but they don’t show they have favourites and they certainly don’t use them and abuse them.

Good bosses know that favouritism within the team is a bad thing. If there is a favourite in the team, the team will eventually become aware of it and resent it. The favourite will also become aware of their teammates’ resentment and progressively become more isolated. Not great for the favourite, not great for the team and ultimately not great for the boss – that’s why good bosses don’t play favourites.

Other Ways to Recognise a Bad Boss or a Good One

  • Bad bosses often make promises lightly but never deliver. Good bosses weigh up the pros and cons before making commitments or promises, then do everything they can to deliver on them.
  • Bad bosses pretend to be one of the boys, in a vain effort to build trust, so making manipulation easier. Good bosses, on the other hand, while being friendly and genuinely interested in their team members, often stay slightly aloof.
  • Bad bosses gossip. They believe it gives them and edge. They listen to gossip and they spread it. Good bosses often see gossip as so much static and ignore it, while keeping one ear out for anything that might damage the integrity of their team. They never spread or repeat gossip, which enhances their reputation among the team as being steadfast and trustworthy.
  • Bad bosses allocate blame to deflect it from themselves. Ultimately, a boss his responsible for his team and any mistakes they make, so a good boss will often take one for the team – even if he had very little to do with it personally.

It's Important to Know the Difference

A bad boss will be detrimental to your career and work life. A good boss will help with you career and you will be happier and more satisfied in you work. It is important to know the difference—hopefully this article has helped you in spotting which is which.

What Type of Boss Have You Encountered?

What type of boss have you encountered with the traits in this article?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jerry Cornelius


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    • Jerry Cornelius profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry Cornelius 

      15 months ago

      Yep, completely agree with you Liz. It's impossible to lead by example if you aren't prepared to it yourself.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      15 months ago from UK

      I like the swan analogy. I used to have a boss who used a lot of meaningless phrases. We used to sit in meetings recording the number he used! When I worked in management many years ago one of my key notes was not to ask anyone to do anything that I was not prepared to do myself.


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