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What can you learn from a bad boss?

Date: Sep 30, 2015

Sooner or later we are likely to work under a poor manager.  It may not be much fun at the time but it could prove to be a very useful learning experience.

At some point in our careers most of us will work for a manager who seems to be incompetent or determined to make life difficult for us.  If to date you have avoided this misfortune don’t be too complacent because you may be only one step away from this experience - the promotion, resignation, dismissal, retirement or transfer of your current manager or the takeover or restructuring of your company/firm might easily land you in such a situation.  It may prove to be an uncomfortable experience at the time but eventually you may come to realise that it was a very instructive and character forming period of your career.

Bad management comes in many different forms
Not every manager is naturally a good one and many find themselves propelled in to such a role without proper experience or training.  It is possible that they were reluctant to take on the responsibilities of the position but feared the possible repercussions and damage to their career that might result from turning down the promotion.

Some managers may simply lack the leadership skills and judgement that are required to manage effectively, such as the ability to inspire confidence, or knowing how best to motivate, evaluate and develop their staff.  Others may fall short in many other ways, such as being indecisive, lazy, petty-minded, negative, ungrateful, untrustworthy, vindictive, rude, unapproachable, poor delegators or unwilling to listen to new ideas.  

The list of possible deficiencies is endless but despite their unsatisfactory behaviours or attitudes some underperforming managers have the knack of hanging on to their jobs for many years.  The impact and cost for their organisations may be enormous.

Some of these individuals may be blissfully unaware of their shortcomings whereas others will knowingly behave in these ways and perhaps even relish the ‘tough’ reputation they think it generates for them. They may not realise what a detrimental effect they are having on the morale and performance of their employees.  The relationship between a manager and their staff is of fundamental importance if the organisation is to perform effectively.

As we move through our careers we will inevitably encounter a wide range of bosses, each with their own management style and personality.   Some we will rate more highly than others as managers; a few we will remember more fondly than the rest.  Yet it may be those who we found the most difficult to work for that taught us the most valuable lessons, as we learned from witnessing their mistakes and the consequences at close quarters or found ourselves outraged by their unreasonable demands.

There are many factors that influence the opinion that we form of someone and the reality is that we often misjudge others or too quickly jump to conclusions about them.  We then hold fast to our initial impression and ignore any later experiences or information that tends to contradict our opinion.  We can easily let our personal prejudices and preconceptions deflect us from making an objective assessment based on the facts.  This can be as true when we are assessing our past or present managers as it is for anyone else that we come in to contact with.

It may be tempting to think of those with whom we have an easy affinity or who treat us well as being ‘good’ managers and to categorise those that we cannot warm to or who treat us harshly as being ‘bad’ managers - but that is too simplistic.  The hard taskmaster may in fact be doing us a bigger personal favour than the boss who shields us and allows us to coast along.  In the long run a manager who does not challenge and stretch us sufficiently, seek to develop our full potential, toughen us up to face the harsh realities that we will encounter in our careers or teach us to be accountable for our own mistakes is not doing us any favours.

Look for the positives

The period spent working under an incompetent or downright nasty manager may eventually prove to have been highly beneficial to our personal development.  The experience may not have felt very positive at the time and at times it will have felt more like an era that had simply to be endured and survived.  However anyone who has subsequently progressed to a managerial or supervisory role may realise that they learned as much – perhaps more - from working with those who were bad at managing as they did from working with those who got it right (most of the time, at least!).  

Those who have personally experienced the frustration and demotivation caused by poor management are unlikely to forget the hard lessons they endured.  They will be determined to avoid repeating the same mistakes themselves now that they have moved in to a supervisory or management role.  

•    You will have learned to meet demanding targets, unreasonable deadlines and not to make silly mistakes in your work.  Thinking before you speak or write anything will have become ingrained in you because you realised that any deficiencies would bring forth the wrath of your hyper-critical manager.  Developing the habit of always making sure your work is done to the highest possible standard will stand you in good stead.
•    After surviving this difficult period you should feel more self-confident and capable of tackling even the most demanding challenges.
•     That manager who never showed any appreciation of your efforts and achievements will have also ensured that you developed a thick skin and learned to be resilient.  During that era praise may not have always been given to you when it had been earned but in future when it does come your way you will have learned to appreciate it and to show genuine gratitude.
•    It may also have taught you to always try to be an optimist and to think positively - remember that nothing (not even a bad boss) lasts forever.  It may have helped you to develop a sense of perspective and to realise that a sense of humour is a valuable asset if you are to cope in the wonderful world of IP!
•    Working under a managerial tyrant will have taught you valuable survival skills that you would never have developed under a more lenient boss.  The intellectual property field is just as much of a jungle as the rest of the business world and the need to always have your wits about you and not to drop your guard will have become ingrained in you.
•    Working for a manager who did not welcome input from members of their team and instead imposed their own ideas all the time will have taught you that this approach overlooks an important resource and alienates staff.  It can be hard to get total commitment to plans and goals that are simply imposed from above and this can increase the risk that the team will not ‘go the extra mile’ to ensure successful delivery of the target arbitrarily set by a manager.
•    A bad manager is likely to be oblivious to the impact that their poor judgement or behaviour is having on others or its negative contribution towards achievement of the team’s goals.  However this may inadvertently be helping you to hone your team working skills because you and your colleagues will learn to support each other and realise the importance of co-operating effectively to ensure you all survive.  Once you recognise that you are all in it together it may not seem so bad and you will collectively evolve coping mechanisms. You may also learn the hard way that those who egg you on to speak up about something suddenly become quiet when you most need their support in a meeting with the manager.  These can be situations that provide invaluable experience and from which natural leaders emerge.
•    You will have learned to become resourceful and to be a lateral thinker, in order to get your ideas past your boss and achieve your personal goals.
•    You will have learned a sense of timing and how to be diplomatic in presenting news or information that someone else may not want to hear.  Your interaction with your difficult manager will have provided plenty of practice in choosing the right moment to raise difficult issues and finding ways to avoid confrontation but still get the necessary message across.
•    Working for an incompetent or reluctant delegator will have convinced you of the importance of effective delegation – of choosing the right team member for the task, defining the task clearly and making sure they understand what is expected, giving them the necessary tools and authority, and then having the confidence to step back and let them get on with the job without undue interference.
•    The predicament might have motivated you to further develop yourself (e.g. with additional qualifications) to facilitate escaping from your bad manager, whereas a more comfortable working environment may have tempted you to coast along and not reach for the greater opportunities that were waiting elsewhere.  
•    You may even discover that as you get to know your manager better or as you look back on the experience that they had some positive qualities.   As you became better placed to see things from their perspective you may realise that they had a point and were justified in criticising you.  You may become aware that they had an even more demanding boss above them, who they had to try and satisfy.  Learning not to be too hasty in your judgement of people and to be prepared to modify your opinion as you learn more about them and the circumstances in which they have to operate will have been advantageous for your personal development.

There may be other benefits too.  On those occasions when you do have direct interaction with managers who are senior to your ‘bad’ boss it should be easier to impress them than it would be if you were working for someone who was brilliant in every way.  If you have a positive attitude and fresh ideas, that may contrast with what the senior management are used to seeing or hearing from your immediate manager and catch their attention.  You need to resist the temptation to overtly criticise your immediate manager and to always approach such a situation with great care and diplomacy or you may be seen simply as a disloyal ‘backstabber’ but if handled correctly it may lead to you being noticed as someone they earmark for future promotion.

Working for a poor manager may also provide a great opportunity to come up with ideas for improvement.  If the manager is not capable of recognising the shortcomings in the existing operation or of identifying innovations that will aid performance then that gives you the chance to propose some.  You may sometimes have to suffer as the manager takes the credit for your ideas but they may come to recognise that you are a valuable member of the team who makes valuable contributions - perhaps they will eventually show their appreciation in financial or other ways.
Finally, when you have reached a point where you can comfortably reflect on this challenging time in your career history you will at least be able to recognise that you have now arrived in a more positive environment and fully appreciate it.  You may also feel a certain sense of achievement and satisfaction in having turned it to advantage by not just surviving but also learning from the experience.

Bob Boad, Associate Director, Marlow IP Recruitment


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