How To Tell If Your Boss Is A Hopeless Jerk—Or If You Just Can't Hack It

Sometimes you need to toughen up, and sometimes your boss is actually just terrible. Peter Shankman helps you tell the difference.

Let’s spend a little time on the traits that make for bad leaders: the bastards who drive employees crazy, the ones who take too many unacceptable risks that are bad for shareholders, or who behave in ways that are simply bad for the image of the business.

Here are the warning signs that a hopeless jerk could be running your company—or, if you’re willing to take a good look at yourself, the warning signs that you may be the jerk (or that you are perhaps heading in that direction). Think of the following as a diagnostic checklist.

Know-It-All Dictator: The top dog doesn’t leave room for disagreements out of a sense of personal insecurity, arrogance, or both. The loyalty of the few cronies he or she has is built on fear, and so it isn’t authentic friendship (hey, it also means those cronies could stage a coup at some point and throw him or her out). This often results in a dulled level of commitment and enthusiasm on the part of other employees and partners who may stop telling the truth or even start lying just to avoid the boss’s wrath. Backbiting among the executives and managers can become common and public. This makes for a highly stressful workplace and results in an increased rate of no-shows, as well as an accelerated turnover rate.

Uninterested in Feedback: Feedback, often called “360 feedback,” allows employees to give and receive confidential, anonymous feedback on a wide range of workplace issues both to and from the people who work around them, including supervisors, peers, and direct reports. Leaders who don’t care what their staff thinks of managers and of the leadership itself aren’t interested in solving personnel problems or, for that matter, in enhancing relationships that are working. You don’t have to hire expensive outside consultants to run a feedback program—but the best leaders usually have some system in place that measures and codifies how they’re perceived in terms of management weaknesses and strengths.

Takes Sides Unfairly and Openly: Don’t you love it when the boss lets some people go home early while others (you, maybe) are stuck behind to clean up the mess? How about those whispery, gossipy sessions you see him or her having with a colleague behind a barely closed door? I’m sure we’ve all watched those before with a “WTF” look on our faces. Or worse, you see that stock options, bonuses, and perks are unfairly linked to completely subjective performance reviews. “If you can see performance is rewarded and it’s transparent and everyone gets a chance to earn that too, then preferential treatment is fine. If special treatment is not transparent and not clear, you are creating a very bad political situation,” says Robert Sher, head of CEOtoCEO, an executive consulting firm.

Wasteful or Out-of-Whack Use of Resources: Leaders who allocate budgets to business units or departments based on favoritism and power centers rather than actual business needs, innovation, or performance are wasting talent, plain and simple. How long do you think it will take for that to bite you back?

The Desert Island Boss: a leader with nonexistent stewardship doesn’t care about local community, doesn’t hire local workers, and doesn’t participate in local community outreach. Moreover, he or she engages in products or services that don’t contribute positively to the environment or the community either locally or globally.

Wants a Castle in the Sky: Empire builders believe that the more people they manage and the bigger the budget, the greater the chance they’ll get promoted. This management style often results in ugly turf wars and can destroy productivity, innovation, and workplace harmony. It can also lead to bloated management, with too many layers within and between departments. Nothing gets done because people are too busy figuring out protocol and checking off boxes on lists. Good luck trying to beat the competitor in that castle. They’ll be coming in through the windows.

Talks Too Much, Does Too Little: you can’t just talk about great ideas; you have to implement them, too. When you’re all talk and no action, rank-and-file employees become disillusioned. They start blogs or online businesses selling flea market scores, or they write screenplays on company time because you’re too busy listening to yourself pontificate. Your managers waste budgets and time on report after useless report. In short, teams become fragmented, and people lose interest. “Don’t leave someone in place who can’t deliver,” says Sher.

Thinks Adversaries Work Better than Teams: Bosses who foster the idea that every person is in it for himself or herself interfere with a sense of camaraderie or esprit de corps. Telltale signs are argumentative and heated meetings where everyone is either sending barbs across the table or checking their Droids. The key criterion for decision-making is “What’s in it for me?” After a while, the answer for many workers becomes all too apparent: nothing.

Constant Cycle of Crisis: You know, it may be true that you should never waste a good crisis, but it’s also true that creating and maintaining a crisis mentality is a recipe for burnout. When your people spend most of their time putting out fires, eventually there’s nothing left to save. Crises may feel exciting, but they are a brain and energy drain.

The first step in fixing a problem is admitting there is one. How much of your company (or yes, even yourself) do you see in the above examples? Let’s get busy removing these warning signs of a hopeless jerk.

Excerpted with permission from Nice Companies Finish First by Peter Shankman Copyright 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

[Image: Flickr user Pedro Szekely]

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1 Comments

  • Logic_cz

    I think it would be interesting, although difficult and decisive, to compare this list to some standard cultural types. I have an idea that there are some prominent cultures that would and do thrive with exactly this list of traits.
    It covers basically A to Z