Why it’s Good to Learn from a Bad Boss

bad manager

Anyone who has spent much time managing knows this to be a management truism you can’t avoid: you learn more from a bad boss than you do from a good one.

I was struck by this again last weekend while reading the latest ‘Corner Office” column in The New York Times. It was a Q&A with Dawn Lepore, the chairwoman and CEO of Drugstore.com, and she had a lot to say about being a manager and building a company.

Great advice for every manager to follow

It was all good, if fairly predictable, management talk, but then she said something interesting when asked if she had any bosses who were big influences:

I had a very bad boss early in my career. She was older than I was. She’d started in the financial services industry and she’d had a very hard time, so I think that probably shaped her as a leader. She was very smart but had terrible communication skills. She did not make people feel valued or comfortable or like they were supported at all. And I remember what that felt like. And I thought, I’m never going to do that to people.”

This is great advice that probably every manager or HR professional knows in their heart – you learn the very most about managing people from dealing with those who manage people badly. And, the bad managers that have the biggest impact are those you got stuck working for yourself.

Yes, there’s a lot you can learn from watching how people should NOT treat other people. In my career, I’ve had great bosses and terrible bosses, smart bosses and dumb bosses. I’ve also had bosses who were thoughtful managers, bosses who were purposely forgetful, and bosses who were over-the-top political. There were ones I would run through a wall for, but also ones I would run away from if I saw them walking down the street.

Best lessons come from bad managers

I learned from the good ones, of course, but the greatest lessons came from the really bad managers I toiled under. For example:

  • There was the guy who was abusive and mean who seemed to revel his ability to bully and frighten people. I was his designated punching bag and was called on the carpet just about every day by this glowering thug who had no discernible skills except his ability to break a union – and to make you think he was ready to punch you if you said the wrong thing. He was threatened by me because I was popular with the staff and, frankly, could manage rings around him. He threatened me and my job every day until I got fed up and left.
  • Another boss was a control freak (lots of bad managers fall into that category), an entrepreneur who started his own company and built it into a moderate success but was unable to let anyone else make a real decision. This stunted the company’s growth but you couldn’t tell this guy that – and he would yell at you if you even hinted at it. His worst trick was holding lunch meetings with individual departments where he interrogated the participants in the hope that someone would accidentally say something incriminating. Usually, the greenest person – someone who was so new to the organization they didn’t know which end was up – would make an off-hand observation that was wrong because they didn’t know better, but this bad boss would jump on that information and usually someone would lose their job as a result.
  • Finally, there was a guy who had no appreciation at all for what it took to get work done. He thought things just magically happened, I guess, because he was constantly squeezing resources and wondering why you couldn’t do more with less. Worst yet, when you tried to bring this up during the annual budget planning discussions, he would accuse you of “not being a team player” and “not being on board” or supportive of his agenda. And if you ever brought up the lack of resources at a later date, this arrogant SOB would chide and berate you for your inability to make a strong case that would convince him you really needed the resources anyway.

Bad bosses “a necessary evil’

Bad bosses are a way of life and a necessary evil, because if we didn’t have bad ones, we probably wouldn’t appreciate what it takes to be a good one. Dawn Lepore of Drugstore.com understands this, because she said this when asked for advice to people stuck with a bad boss:

Life is about trade-offs. And you have to be conscious of the trade-off you’re making. I felt there were enough other positives in the environment and enough opportunity that I stuck it out. But, you know, I was unhappy. I had to kind of just take a deep breath and say, OK, I know this is going to end and I’m willing to put up with this. But you can’t be a victim. If you let yourself become a victim, that’s the kiss of death. So you’ve got to feel, OK, I am choosing to do this, and when I decide I can no longer do it, then I will take action. So I will not let myself be so belittled that I think I can’t do anything. If it starts undermining your confidence, then you have to leave, because then that seeps into everything you do.”

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That sounds like a conversation that an HR pro might have with an employee stuck with a bad boss, and I know that’s the case because I have sat in on all-too-many like conversations where I heard my HR staff say similar things. And generally in those sessions, the HR pros try to impart this bit of pragmatic advice: just about everyone has to deal with a bad boss at some point, and how you deal with them  says a lot about you.

Yes, dealing with a bad boss is one of those necessary evils you always hear about, something you need to endure and learn from, because if you ever do aspire to be a top executive or CEO, you’ll need to remember the takeaways from working with a bad manager so you can avoid doing the same.

  • Gail H

    I've just come out of a job working for a selfish, egotistical boss. I learned a lot about myself in the process as I learned to cope. I don't recommend it for career advancement, but it will help in your character development!

  • AC

    This is a great article and I think it points out what is very true. Working for a bad boss can teach you a lot, especially about what not to do and how to be a more effective leader.