Just how bad is a bad boss?

New survey confirms bad bosses and ineffective leaders are the main reason why nearly half of workers — even higher among 18-34-year-olds — resign from their positions.

Oct. 16 was National Boss’s Day, and while the day is meant to recognize bosses for their hard work and dedication, it’s also a good reminder that if you’re a bad boss, you won’t keep your best employees for long.

That’s especially true of younger employees, who are more likely than their older peers to walk away from a job with a bad boss. According to a new survey conducted by global staffing firm Robert Half, nearly half of professionals surveyed (49 percent) left a position because of a challenging manager. Additionally, more professionals ages 18-34 (54 percent) have resigned due to a difficult boss than respondents ages 35-54 (49 percent) and 55 and older (41 percent).

For managers, having a positive relationship with employees can directly affect happiness on the job, notes Jim Jeffers, metro market manager at Robert Half in Madison. When managers and employees support each other, it boosts productivity, fosters innovation, and sets both parties up for success. Long-term, healthy professional relationships can transform into good references and even great friendships.

“On the other hand, difficult leaders can deter workers from joining or staying at a company, severely impacting retention efforts in Madison’s tight employment market,” advises Jeffers.

What are some types of challenging managers and how can workers handle them?

There might be some truth to the common phrase, “people leave managers, not companies,” says Jeffers. For workers who want to stand their ground with difficult supervisors, here are a few tips on handling these classic bad boss types:

  • Micromanager: There’s nothing worse than a bad boss who watches over employees all day, scrutinizing each move they make, while barking constant instructions. Have an open dialogue about what your boss expects from you and what the big picture goals are. Keep your boss in the loop on projects and proactively offer progress reports.  
  • Hands-off manager: Those managers on the other end of the scale — the ones who never weigh in with opinions, provide vague direction, or leave tough decisions to other people all the time — are another reason why good employees leave. Communicate with them as often as possible. Set a regular meeting time to discuss progress, if it’s not already on your calendar.
  • The bully boss: No one wants to dread coming into work to deal with toxic colleagues. Stand up for yourself and present your case. Explain your rationale for your decisions and anticipate your manager’s questions so you can better argue your stance. This type of boss tends to relent after hearing the voice of reason.
  • Overly emotional boss: A short temper and an impatient attitude are a bad combination in a manager. This type of manager can be explosive and bring personal baggage to the office. Try to stay calm, even in stressful situations. Document conversations in case things go awry.

What are some qualities of good bosses?

Good bosses have great communication skills and provide guidance while establishing a good rapport with employees. “They identify and implement ways to create a happy work environment for their team, making sure to provide development opportunities and encourage growth,” explains Jeffers. “Great leaders treat their workers with fairness and regularly check in with them to get a sense of their workloads.”

Workers can ask themselves these questions to determine if they’re ready to be a leader:

  • Are you comfortable making difficult decisions? Managers must regularly make tough, time-sensitive choices, and the outcomes don’t always please everyone.
  • Can you inspire others? The best leaders are passionate about what they do and motivate those around them.
  • Are you a good listener? Being a strong communicator is one of the most valuable leadership skills and listening to input from others is part of that equation.
  • Do you mind taking the blame? When things go wrong, the boss is often the one held accountable.
  • Are you OK stepping away from day-to-day activities? Taking on a leadership role can mean delegating projects to others and losing some hands-on experience.

Ineffective leadership was also the subject of a seminar presentation at yesterday’s ninth annual IB Expo and Conference at the Alliant Energy Center.

Laura V. Page, director of leadership and management programs at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, noted there are numerous reasons why leaders exhibit bad leadership habits, but it often comes down to three common culprits. Most fundamentally, leaders are human. “We all have bad habits, and humans are creatures of habit. We don’t change easily; too often it takes some kind of crisis. Before we all get too judgmental here, it’s important to understand that our human brain is designed to create habits — habits of behavior and habits of thought. Habits save energy, and the brain is an energy miser.”

According to Page, most leaders and managers also have very little training in how to lead. Careers often develop very fast, and many degrees and courses of study contain little or no training in the soft skills — “an unfortunate term,” says Page.

“Another reason is leadership and management are difficult and complex,” states Page. “Leaders deal with so many things in addition to their human resources — competition, budgets and finance, technology, constant change; the list is daunting. They can’t be good at everything.”

The single, best way organizations can help their leaders overcome those bad habits and learn to develop good ones is through education, says Page.

“That’s not a surprising answer from me, an educator, but education can come in so many forms, both formal and informal,” Page explains. “Think mentoring and being coached. Think reading books and blogs and joining a community of practice. Think of the myriad of development classes available today in-person and online. We are blessed with so many resources in the Madison area.”

A somewhat obvious answer is to promote people into management roles who actually want to manage people and who want to learn about how to do that well. “In general, organizations don’t have enough career paths upward,” Page notes. “If the only path to getting a substantial raise or promotion is to move into management, then guess what happens? Don’t guess, you know. Put the words ‘non-management career paths’ into an internet search engine and explore what can be done!”

Below is a sketch-note synopsis of Page’s Expo presentation made by an illustrator from Fitchburg-based Truscribe during the IB Expo:


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