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Peter Stucki

I once came across a comic strip which praised the Lousy Boss and the Corporate Drone Job as the quintessential incubator for entrepreneurial success. The cartoon claimed that a Drone Job was undemanding enough to finance your dream idea, much in that the Swiss Patent Office job was dull enough to allow Young Einstein to develop his Theories of Relativity.
The Bad Boss (as long as he/she isn't a totalitarian dictator) is indifferent enough to allow you the freedom, but bad enough to "sour the milk" of the "corporate teat" and force you to go out and start a business or follow that dream of your own....
My Bad Boss got me to quit and write that novel I always wanted to. My other Bad Boss got me to quit and gain great clarity, the kind you can't get otherwise, from a neighbor lady suffering terminal cancer who said, "Don't waste good time on fear. Ignore fear and spend your limited time on what really matters."

CareerAnnie

Nope. I would trade all the bad bosses in the world for one good one. My short experience with a less-than-perfect boss was the worst of my life. Sure, I learned avoidance techniques and my emotional limits, but to what end? Being marooned in the wilderness is likely to teach you a few things about survival, but mostly it just sucks.

Rhiannon

Hi Bob,

My first time commenting so I'd like to say how much I enjoy your writing. I keep telling anyone who will listen about your books and yesterday convinced the (very expensive) organisational redesign people who are currently doing a big piece of work on values and behaviours at where I work to put 'strong views, lightly held' as a key point for our senior leaders, as it is such a great summary of what people try to express about what they want/need from good bosses.

Ok, on to this fascinating thought experiment. I reckon there's a lot to be said for the reframing. I've worked for some truly terrible bosses and have consistently learned huge amounts from them - about myself, my abilities, what I don't want to do and what I do want to do.

I am passionate about good management and leadership and am fortunuate enough to have had some luck with doing ok at it, mostly due to learning what NOT to do from the terrible bosses I worked for. (Although I recognise I don't truly understand what it's like to work for me! And that I never get it right all the time, or even most of the time, is a constant balancing act)

The point about how a bad boss can make you look good is really true as well. The three worst bosses I worked for, early on in my career, were truly dreadful and not terribly well respected in the organisations. As a result, I ended up with an excellent reputation with senior leaders in all three organisations and with offers of help, requests for advice and generally very strong relationships.

It's also really easy to back myself and my opinions/views if I have no respect for my boss - if they disagree, doesn't bother me or make me question myself. This is really useful for propelling oneself forward!

My last two organisations, I've had excellent bosses, both excellent in very different ways. And the truth is, I haven't learned much about how to be a manager from either of them! I've learned about other things but the best bits of my management come from remembering what it's like to be treated badly, and being determined not to repeat that.

Anyway, thanks for the great books and blog, I'll look forward to the follow up to this post.

Jsaaby

The ONLY things I've ever learned from bad bosses, is how I don't want to be.

Which has actually been very helpful, as I'm educating towards leadership. It's really solidified my beliefs on how I don't want to be or act.

It's given me a very strong view of what's dehumanizing teams and organizations, and why that's a bad thing.

Other than that, it's just been stressful to deal with them.

Michael D

For every potential rockstar that thrives under a bad boss, how many become so demoralized that they never recover and find their rhythm? Reasoning by anecdote does not work here.

The good boss in this post isn't really a good boss. He asked his employees to put everything on the table for the team and keep nothing for themselves. He wasn't a mean controlling a**hole, but he may have been a nice controlling a**hole.

Good bosses give you space to pursue your goals. Bosses who don't do this don't deserve to be called good bosses, no matter how well they sugarcoat their controlling behaviors.

Vicki

One advantage I have experienced is that the bad boss gave me the motivation to do what I truly yearn to do. I'd rather be struggling doing something I truly believe in than comfortable doing things that go against the grain of my being.

Next phase of my career in motion now. :-)

Paula

Bad boss good stuff:
1. Individual limits - bad bosses teach you very good awareness of yourself and your emotional resilience.
2. Sharpened avoidance techniques - bad bosses help you learn sensational avoidance techniques for people and work which make study avoidance mode look like a picnic.
3. self awareness - bad bosses teach you self awareness of your own management techniques, particularly of people.
4. Who you don't want to be or perceived to be - bad bosses help you realise who you don't want to be or be perceived as either personally or professionally

davidburkus

Interesting question. Makes me think of the late Steve Jobs. By all reports, he was a bit of a jerk to work for, but yet seemed to bring out the best in people.

Larry

"What does not kill me makes me stronger." Nietzsche. While good times or bosses are more enjoyable, bad times and bosses make us stronger.

Jenilee

Bob,

I see. The "silver lining." In that case I'd like to add my own experience with a bad boss:

My bad boss was very intelligent but had absolutely no people skills. He lacked empathy, diplomacy and tact. Still, I am the better for it. He critiqued just about everything: from my written communication to my clothes. I became hyper-vigilant about how I presented myself and how others perceived me. In retrospect, this has served me well in my professional career. Although I wish I could have arrived at the same place in a different manner, those days have passed and I have grown as a result.

Larry

I agree with Jeremy that it very much depends on what kind of bad boss one has. To paraphrase Tolstoi, bad bosses are each bad in unique ways; good bosses are all very similar. Moreover, is this not a restatement of the aphorism that one learns more from one's mistakes than from one's successes? I want some 130 proof bourbon.

Bob Sutton

Elad,

Many of your arguments seem reasonable, but what disturbs me is that you don't seem to get that this is more of a thought experiment, a way of re-framing something bad as good -- to see what happens when you look at the same thing as everyone else and think of it differently.

I could go into point by point argument... but that is not what this is about. But to take just one, I could point many situations in organizations I know well -- from universities, to large high tech organizations, to a big hospital chain I know -- where individuals who have bad bosses, but are renowned for their skills and political sense, do get more power -- more pay, more respect -- than they otherwise would because they have lousy bosses, which makes them look better by contrast and also they are more objectively valuable because they compensate and clean-up for their crummy bosses. This point is consistent with the cognitive switch I am asking for...

Elad Sherf

Personality, I don’t buy the points you present.

Point #1 – yes you can learn from watching bad bosses. But can’t you also learn from having great bosses? I am not sue you can’t. Actually a great boss will make sure you learn along the way. With this logic. We will always have bad bosses every second third generation. I don’t see the need ot the sense in that given the other disadvantages of having a bad boss.
Point #2 – maybe, but why is this important? Is there some kind of competition? I am not sure what exactly is the benefit of that? In addition to assuming that somebody is actually looking and comparing you too (which I am not sure is always true), this point assumes that you are doing the same comparable job… I think this will become more and more rare…
Point #3 – maybe I am naïve but I am not sure I understand this distinction between “me” and the organization of the “job”. Aren’t they the same? Isn’t part of your job (and reputation, and skills) is OCB? Isn’t part of your job is interaction with others (which also has benefits which are not included here). If you are really doing you don’t like and are not competent at for a long time, perhaps your boss is not as good as you claim he or she is.
Point #3b – not sure who this is another point in favor of bad bosses…looks like more to #3, in that case, see above.
Point #4- again, being a bit naïve, but a good boss negates this entire idea of “power”. The idea of “power” (at least in the sense I understand it here from the context) is needed, if decisions are not made in a process that benefits the organization and its employees. I the boss is good, it will happen not matter how much power you have. The need of employees to use “power” of this sort, points, in my mind to a mismanaged organization.
Point #5 – as you mention yourself, this is cheating. Not sure if all the employees with bad bosses (and their organizations) really benefit from the possibility of replacing the boss and being good at it.

Yes, we should make the most out of every situation, however I don’t see that these things are more important than the benefits of a really good boss.
Just my 2 cents,
Elad

Bob Sutton

Jenilee,

I agree completely that bad bosses are bad and should not be tolerated, but depending on which data you believe, at one time, 20% to %50% of the working people on the planet have a bad boss. So they are tolerated and people get in situations where they need to make the best of a bad situation. So that is where I want to go with this --sorry to be rather crass, but if your organization is getting screwed and you've done what you can to stop or slow the damage done by your bad boss, I see nothing wrong with doing what you can to help yourself! Of course, so long as it is not unethical.

Jenilee

At best, bad bosses are a mixed bag for employees. Some major *benefits* to having a bad boss are that they can provide perspective, encourage autonomy, and promote leadership (as described above).

The extra power or efficiency that you may get from a bad boss (as described above) does not seem like much of a benefit to me. If you have a good boss you will perform better, and the same benefits will come.

On a side note, I'd like to point out that bad bosses are bad for organizations. If you agree, then the question of whether they're good for employees becomes less important. If bad bosses are bad for business, we shouldn't tolerate them, period.

Walt

My thought is having a bad boss is nearly always bad, especially when compared to what you could have gained with having a good boss/mentor/champion.

The stress and frustration caused by a bad boss is sometimes not felt quite as strongly with the passing of time.

If some have fond memories or see some sort of silver lining, then then they subscribe to Nietzsche's: That which doesn't kill me, only makes me stronger.

Life's too short. Sure an unreliable car would improve my mechanic skills. Getting taken by a con artist would make me shrewder and more aware. Getting robbed would make me learn to get better directions. Et cetera.

Jeremy

Maybe it depends on the type of bad boss they are. Micromanaging types of bosses are going to disallow the freedom you mention, and actually make it harder to think creatively, act independently, and get things done.

Bad bosses I've had in the past like those in your article did motivate me to prove myself more competent, intelligent, and a harder worker than they were. That may have taught me something about the value of perception, but generally it just made me work harder and look better than them for that period of time that they were my boss. However, good bosses I've had who allowed for creative thinking and encouraged acting independently have been the bosses that I've learned the most long-lasting lessons from over the years: punctuality, hard work, creative thought, being detail oriented, thinking big picture, etc.

Bob Sutton

Melissa,

Thanks, great story. I had a similar experience with making excuses when I worked at a pizza place when I was a teenager.

Melissa

A bad boss broke me of a bad habit.

I was one of those deeply earnest kids who had an overinflated vocabulary. When I got nervous I would use bigger words.

Then I had a bad boss who didn't share my vocabulary. He wouldn't tell me he didn't understand but he would get deeply suspicious and angry if I used words he didn't understand.

When I figured this out I had a really strong motivation to learn to use smaller word and speak more clearly.

It was a bad experience, but the lesson has served me well.

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