If You Do These 3 Things, You're Probably A Hateable Boss

To avoid being a gigantic jerk, you need to understand what gigantic jerks do. Luckily, leadership experts Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins have done research on this.

"If you realize you're going to sound like an asshole at least three times a week, you're apt to catch yourself at it now and again."

That's Geoffrey Nunberg, the University of California linguist who penned Ascent of the A-Word, a concise history of assholism. We talked to him last year about what makes assholes such assholes (the takeaway: if you think your title is your identity, you're most likely one).

Fresh light has recently been shed on assholish behavior over at Harvard Business Review, as executive coaches and leadership developers Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins distilled the findings of 360 qualitative interviews about the behaviors of bosses that are most aggravating—or, in other words, what makes you sound like an asshole.

Hateworthy: Judgmentality

Most of our communication is nonverbal, Su and Wilkins observe, so much of one's jerkishness comes not from what one says, but how, in terms of tone and body language.

What are the ways? You may sound "evaluative, harsh, or condescending," which, the authors observe, might not be intentional, but in the moment. It's also in your face: furrowed brows, deep scowls, quizzical looks, resting bitchface syndrome—each can be microviolence.

Ire-stoking: Interruptionism

People are most creative, thoughtful, and integrative when they feel secure. But if they feel like a predator is afoot, ready to gobble them up for the slightest squabble, they won't be able to tap into their inner Einstein.

What are the clues of predatory interruptionism? Do you wait to talk or do you listen? Do you cut people off? Do you unnecessarily interrogate? I'm not done here: Do you expect every idea to be fully structured before someone speaks? If so, Su and Wilkins say, you'll find yourself without partners in thought.

Chagrin channeling: Inconsistence

Most Creative Person Bryan Cranston, whom you may know as Walter White on Breaking Bad, talked to us about how inconsistencies in his show give "pinches of poison" to the viewer—if he's not sleeping on the same side of his bed every episode, it irks the viewer. Poison pinches happen at work, too: Su and Wilkins observe that if a boss is charming with the exec team and disrespectful to everyday workers, it makes the office a walking-on-egg-shells environment, since you don't know if the charmer or the judger will be showing up.

Bottom Line: Catch yourself when you're sounding like an asshole. Consistently.

Which Behaviors Must Leaders Avoid?

[Alphabet Letters: Wanchai Orsuk via Shutterstock]

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8 Comments

  • Ryanf

    This is a great article for those who obviously self reflect but the horrible boss probably doesn't self reflect and read this. So.... How do we get the boss man/lady to read up.

  • safetyofdarkness

    Agreed. Some jerks can benefit from this reality check. Others are deliberately harming the employee as in workplace bullying, and aim to create chaos, and feed off others' suffering. Some are corporate psychopaths, often referred to as serial-bullies, and this type do not intend to change.

  • Jason Clark

    Stanford Professor Robert Sutton responded to this question when he talked about his book "Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst". He said don't tell them to read it. Your best bet is to leave it sitting around the office cooler, but even then they may know it was you.

  • james pisano

    Those things are certainly mistakes, but there are far bigger failures that can make you disliked as a boss: 1) failure to solicit input from your employees, 2) failure to demonstrate competency and expertise in the employee's job, 3) failure to listen objectively when an employee offers input on how the job might be better done. No doubt there are many others, but these are the ones that come to mind.

  • Jacquie Gouveia

    My most unlikeable bosses have been the ones who are insecure with themselves - this leads to a boat load of issues in the office.

  • Reina Carpeso

    Employees with boss who's a tool need to have a Jerk Jar for the office. :)