If you lead any sort of team, chances are you’ll eventually ask yourself this question: “Am I a horrible boss?” It’s hard to know what others truly think of you. Oftentimes it’s just as difficult to objectively assess your own performance. This is especially true when you have to make hard decisions, don’t have the privilege of explaining yourself, or aren’t even aware of the unintended consequences of your actions.
How do I know if I'm a horrible boss?
There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to do a bad job. And, unfortunately, actions you take may seem good to you and bad to others. Here are a few common indicators that you have some room to improve as a leader, though.
1. You make big decisions before seeking advice from your team
All employees want to feel respected. You may be unintentionally disrespecting them when you make decisions that impact their work. Your team will understand more of the nuance of their work that may go unnoticed by you. Just because you appreciate their job or have even done it in the past does not mean you understand their job as well as they do. So when you make a decision about an employee’s job without seeking their opinion, they will feel like you don’t respect them.
2. You are too focused on metrics
It’s important to measure your progress toward goals and objectives. However, if you only focus on metrics, you may miss important details or valuable opportunities. For example, if an auto factory focuses on assembling as many cars as possible, innovation will fall behind. They may produce an impressive number of cars, but they’ll never improve. Taken to its logical conclusion, focusing solely on car production numbers will result in inferior products, excess inventory, and insufficient demand for your products.
3. You have the wrong metrics
Metrics are great, so long as they are the right metrics. The right metrics are aligned with your goals and objectives. If you have a metric in place that does not have a cause-and-effect relationship with your goals or objectives, you have a bad metric. Bad metrics have plenty of unintended consequences, such as causing employees to focus on the wrong thing, suffer from analysis paralysis, or game the system to make metrics look great without achieving your goals.
4. You treat everyone equally
If you treat everyone exactly the same, believe it or not, you will not be perceived as being fair. When people say they want fair treatment, they typically mean they want equitable treatment. That is, they are seeking the support they need to do their job well. The support one person needs may vary drastically from the support another person needs. Treating the two as equals will result in at least one person feeling disadvantaged.
5. You use the word "resources" instead of people
People like to be referred to as people. The term “resources” may be popular in certain management circles, but it has plenty of psychological implications. A resource is something you can go buy more of, that is likely interchangeable with similar resources, and is not inherently valuable beyond being a means to achieve a desired result. Water is a resource. Money is a resource. People are people. They want to feel valued, and—whether you mean to or not—calling a person a resource is dehumanizing.
6. You think you can always hire a replacement
On a similar note, horrible bosses don’t value the individual employee. They see employees as rows on a spreadsheet, something they need a specific quantity of to serve the business. When they perceive people this way, they become unconcerned with retaining employees. They expect that new employees can be hired to replace anyone that leaves. This overlooks the morale impact that unhappy or departing employees have on the rest of the team. Treating everyone as replaceable makes for a less enjoyable workplace, which results in decreased productivity from your team.
7. You refuse to deviate from established processes
The word “process” has a bad reputation at a lot of companies because bad processes run rampant. Bad processes may have been instituted with good intentions, but they prevent people from doing their best work. Good processes mitigate serious risk, eliminate forgetfulness, and help people be more effective. If you find yourself reminding people to follow a process, or find people begrudgingly doing the bare minimum to meet your process requirements, you may need to re-evaluate whether the process is one worth keeping.
8. You have a horrible boss of your own
A horrible boss can really hurt your outlook on your own job. If you don’t have adequate support, autonomy, or a sense of purpose in your work that is reinforced by the words and actions of your boss, well, you probably aren’t going to give those things to your team either. When you make an unpopular decision for your team, ask yourself if your decision is being driven by unreasonable demands from your own boss or a fear of how your boss will respond to alternatives.
9. You feel like everyone is working against you
If you feel like everyone else is wrong, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror. Do you find yourself asking questions like, “Why does everyone do a bad job?” or “Why does no one care about our goals?” If so, it’s likely because your employees need more support from you. They may not understand the purpose of their work, feel you don’t value their work, or otherwise don’t understand what they’re doing or why. Giving people more context and offering your support can instill a greater sense of purpose in employees’ work.
How can I become a better boss?
If you find yourself exhibiting some of the behaviors above, all is not lost. Recognizing you have room to improve is the first step toward becoming a better boss.
1. Listen more than you speak
The most impactful change you can make as a leader is to listen more than you speak. People often think the best leaders are the ones who give grand speeches and have already thought through the best plan to achieve company goals. However, this is not the case. Confidence is a useful tool for leaders but is not a reliable indicator of effectiveness. Remember that you’ve hired an entire team of people who understand their jobs better than you. Ask for their advice when you’re weighing big decisions. Find out what issues are most important to them. Once you listen to your team, you can make more informed decisions. Your decisions will be more likely to have support from your team as well. Even if you make an unpopular decision, you can frame it with the context people have given you when you sought their advice. Citing facts from your employees will increase their confidence that you are making the best informed decision you can.
2. Pay attention to how you speak
An old boss of mine constantly told me, “Words are important.” What once felt like an exercise in semantics turned into an important lesson in persuasion. By using the right words at the right time, I learned to build stronger arguments based in indisputable facts. Similarly, using a shared vocabulary with my team helped us communicate complex ideas more quickly than we would if we all used our own terminology. By removing ambiguity in your speech and citing indisputable facts, you will eliminate confusion when communicating with your employees.
3. Focus on only a few good metrics
You only need a few key metrics to understand whether you’re moving closer to your goals and objectives. As an exercise, choose your most important metric. What single measurement is most likely to indicate whether your team is meeting your goal? Is that one metric enough? Chances are, just one or two key metrics may be enough to understand your team’s progress. Eliminating unnecessary metrics will clarify what employees should focus on. Additionally, having only a few key metrics will reduce your workload: you’ll have fewer things to monitor, and employees will see what you feel is most important to meeting your goals.
4. Give people the support they need
When you feel that people are working against you, chances are that they think they’re doing an acceptable job. Tell employees when they fall short, but don’t focus on blaming them for doing poor work. Instead, ask them what you can do to help them better accomplish your goals and objectives. Perhaps they need different equipment, additional training, or other support you wouldn’t recognize on your own. When people see you are there to support them—instead of there to whip them into shape—they’ll be more open to feedback and receptive to changing how they work.
5. Give opportunities, not orders
Netflix famously touts a culture focused on context, not control. This doesn’t mean you let employees do whatever they want. Rather, it means giving people appropriate context for what needs to be done while granting them the autonomy to accomplish the goal however they see fit. This flies in the face of traditional top-down management structures, where employees take orders from their boss. There may be situations where you need to give orders to avoid certain catastrophe, but those are few and far between. Generally, when you tell people what needs to be accomplished and how you will measure success, they can sort out the rest. This approach creates opportunities for people to demonstrate a wider range of skills than you may see in their job description. Also, these opportunities give people more ownership over their work, creating an emotional connection between the employee and the task at hand.
6. Prioritize flexibility over compliance
In addition to providing context and autonomy in their work, be flexible when you can be. Good processes mitigate risk and ensure people produce consistently good results. However, there may be times to deviate from the standard processes. Instead of requiring people to follow your established processes every time, ask that they instead be prepared to justify instances when they do not follow the process. By saying “follow the process, or tell me when it doesn’t make sense,” you are signaling that you are open to better ways of doing things. Flexibility gives employees opportunities to improve upon existing processes while discouraging avoidance of known good practices.
7. Shield your people from your horrible boss
If you have your own horrible boss to deal with, try to isolate your team from negative interactions with your boss. Running interference does not mean forbidding your team from talking to your boss. Instead, be cognizant of when team members need to interact with your boss and ensure they have the support they need. Make it clear that you’re willing to be present when they need to meet with your boss, you’re willing to communicate things on their behalf, and you’re willing to take the heat for the team when they fall short of your goals and objectives. Even if your boss is unreasonable at times, you can feel comfort in knowing that you are creating a better place to work for your team by eliminating unnecessary drama caused by your supervisor.
8. Advocate for your people
When someone on your team needs something, make it known to the people who can help. This may mean speaking to your HR Director on their behalf, helping them plan out the specifics of how to follow their ideal career path, or offering up your own political capital when your employee needs something done. Additionally, ensure that you are promoting the good work your people do. Praise their good work in company meetings, describe the importance of their work in management meetings, and otherwise make a point to remind people you have great employees doing great things for the company.
9. Ask for support from your team
Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you have everything you need. If you need help from your employees, ask for it. There is undoubtedly someone on your team who—given the right encouragement—will be more than willing to help you with your work. Helping a boss get things done is often an opportunity to prove yourself prior to a promotion. If that’s a possibility for one of your employees, let them know that the assistance you’re asking for is one step on the path to career advancement. In other situations where that is not appropriate, asking for favors is a very reasonable and humanizing thing to do. Offering up a little vulnerability by asking for help every once in a while may prompt people to change how they perceive you. Maybe you’re not a horrible boss. You just need a little help, the same as anyone else.