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Lui Sieh

Hi Bob and readers,

Check out the latest Adam Bryant's Corner column with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG. This topic of learning from bad boss was right up there.



Bob, I agree that "sucking it up" is not the motto to follow when one of your subordinates is the bad boss. I don't care what your reason is; it's not good enough. When an entire company feels that strongly about the bad boss, chances are it's not sour grapes or a bad attitude on behalf of the employees. With that being said, a bad boss is just like anything else bad in life - if you have to find a silver lining from the experience, you definitely will when you work for a good boss, as I do. How I appreciate him when I look back at the track record of rude, arrogant, insensitive (in the extreme) and idiotic people I've worked for at times!


Rodney Johnson

Interesting question.

Bad Boss vs. Good Boss -
a. Which do you learn most from?
b. Which do you want to work for?
c. Which career path are you pursuing?

Its analagous to the question, do you learn most from a company on the way up, or on the way down.

I can say I did the dot com roll-up, and the dot com belly flop. I think I learnt most from the belly flop. That's not saying I want to repeat it. Many that went through that scenario were scared, a few were inspired. So my guess is - it depends on what kind of person you are.

Lui Sieh

Maybe we need to delve into some human psychology here? Stick vs carrot development? It's probably quite hard not to generalize as an individual is so unique by way of learning.

Personally, the experience(s) of a bad boss is instructive because it will show one what not to do, but also importantly act as a foil for the good boss and his/her impact on self.

A bad boss' impact should be readily apparent and start a thinking process on what's a better way (i.e. "active learning"). At the very minimum, bad bosses will create powerful emotional reactions. We ought to be conscious of that and to then understand "why?". In PM-speak, we call it "lessons learned". I think every person should do a playback in various time intervals (i.e. daily, weekly, monthly etc) as a continuous self-improvement process.

Every negative and positive experience presents a learning opportunity. Every person we encounter through life also is teaching us something. Some folks learn better with negative experiences and some with postivie ones. However, both definitely are needed - what not to-do and what to-do.

And for that, I'm grateful to all my bad bosses and good bosses.

Loren Loiseau

Great article and discussion. It is true that we all have much to learn in situations in which we find ourselves, however I have a strong reaction against Ms. Bartz's comments. It seems to me her comments are a justification for allowing bad managers to keep their jobs.

There are good, bad, easy and hard ways to learn any skill. The best way is to learn from someone who is competent and a good teacher. It behooves a company to have effective management training so that potential managers don't have to learn the hard way.

Martin R-L

On the top of my head, two things that have made me and my colleagues perform bad in two different workplaces are:

1. Micro-management (technical decisions) with lack of competence

2. Working long hours for six months

I've left both of those jobs.


A couple of random flotsam:
1. to what extent is a bad boss a reflection of a bad corporation plus economy? it's when the going gets tough that you stop being able to give the same time, resources to your people?

2. In reading some of the "bad boss" descriptions, was anyone else struck with "that wouldn't bother me"? So some of that is fit. For ex, I actually agree with the comment about "you don't have to respect me, but you have to respect the position". I think that comes down to being a good team player - a boss will have other perspectives, priorities, and values to balance than what is visible to me. And sometimes he may even know that it's the "wrong" decision, but it's coming down from higher up. I'm actually more annoyed with bosses who think I need to respect them and their technical skills instead of their position.

3. I think what's powerful about the Rule, is that it contradicts my training which says that it's all about me, the subordinate, needing to figure out the right way to interact with the boss. If they're yelling at me, it must be my fault, right? Or I think there's a negative feedback loop happening, like we're just not communicating well. But some bosses are just jerks.


There are probably some important factors that determine whether a bad boss with make you better or worse.

I think it matters how closely prescribed the job is. If the job is clearly defined, the bad boss may "infect" other managers who only have one model of how to perform the job.

Likewise, if a job is more broadly defined, a bad boss may compel fellow employees to creatively improve their management skills.


Sorry - #5 of my previous post should have read that bosses should not be intimidated when people they supervise have knowledge, wisdom and skills that are greater than that of the boss - we all have strengths and weaknesses, we should expect that even people below us in the org chart will be better than us at things.


I have learned from bad bosses and by comparing bad and good bosses. What I have learned from bad bosses:
1. You cannot push everything into a policy.
2. When staff do not have autonomy they will become demoralized.
3. "Step on them" is not a management policy that will help the organization.
4. Don't give people whiplash (such as the time I was in a job where I was continuously told I was doing great and then suddenly called in for "serious issues")
5. A manager needs to recognize and not be intimidated when
6. Know your own values and how they impact your decisions - recognize that your values are not everyone's.
7. Don't think of yourself as the arbiter of truth - it's still opinion, even if you're the boss.

I could go on. I'm glad I can learn from the bad in order to be better. But as for staying in a job with a bad boss, I think one needs to recognize where on the spectrum it is. A boss who is annoying but basically harmless is a different matter from one that is a bully. Having worked for 10 months for a bully and living with near constant anxiety and panic attacks, I have to say that when it's that bad, no amount of learning is worth it.


Sorry for the second post but I just wanted to follow up on my differing conclusion from the MIT study.

As I said I felt it showed better performance as a result of reward motivation. I don't believe it says anything about learning but what it does say is as an organization if you can help your employees feel successful they are more likely to be invested and to not only try to succeed but to actually succeed on subsequent tasks. If you make them feel like failures by beating them down all the time you are more likely to actually get failure in the future.

As a paraphrase on Henry Ford's famous quote, "Whether you make your employees believe they can or they can't, you are right."



Here is the study:

However I question the broad conclusion stated by this study that you learn more from your successes than your failures.

What the study found was after getting an answer correct and getting a reward the monkey was more likely to get the next answer correct than if they got the previous answer wrong. And the telling line from the article is this one: "This occurred whether the animal was just learning the association or was already good at it."

That line right there contradicts the statement about "learning." Namely even if the monkey had already learned how to get the correct answer he still did better if he got a reward by getting the previous answer correct.

This seems to be more related to the "feeling" of confidence and heightened participation you get after succeeding. It makes you more likely to do better next time because you have confidence, are more invested, feel good about yourself, and are likely trying harder. And yes I would expect all of those things to show up in the brain as neural impulses.

I get frustrated by good research badly interpreted and I don't see how this research has anything to do with learning. It has to do with reward motivation.

Kevin J Porter

Great post. I had a boss who consistently used negative affect around the workplace. There were several times that I would remind myself to remember how the negative affect lowered morale. As my career develops and I move into a leadership position it will be helpful to draw on the lessons learned from the "negative" boss.


I learned a lot from bad bosses. Often bad bosses have some very good traits which has driven their success. It can be easier to identify and observe specific things to do because the good practices are not comingled with other good practices and/or the bad boss is very good at it.

Bartz's sucking it up comment can work some situations. If you work at company that is constantly reorganizing and rotating managers; sucking it up is just a matter waiting for a change. However, if the bad boss is the company owner or head executive; sucking it up could be the worse thing for a person


Currently I am experiencing an emotionally challenging workplace and I, as well as my husband and friends, have observed negative changes in my behavior. Once confident and lively, I am now filled with self doubt and shyness.

Although I have learned many lessons from a series of bad bosses (along with one amazing boss), if I had the opportunity to replay the past I would have left this organization long ago. Personally, the learning experience was not worth the emotional consequences.


According to a study by the MIT professor Earl Miller, we learn from personal success and not from personal failures. Through brain scans, they can see how changes take place in the brain when research subjects succeed with a task. I couldn't find a link to this study, or to his research, but it shouldn't be that hard to find on the net. The code word here is "personal success", not learning from others.

Regina Wysocki

I completely agree that there is knowledge to be gained from "bad bosses". But I do think that you reach a point where you realize you need to move on from a bad situation. Otherwise you will just continue to be stifled. I stayed at a company 2 years too long, and almost lost myself in the process. I went through a difficult situation with not one, but two departmental bosses, and now that I look back on it, the whole mess helped me define myself and my career goals. However, had I not left when I did, I never would have been able to apply the lessons I learned.

Dan Markovitz

I had a micro-managing boss who told me that I didn't have to respect him, but I had to respect his position.


Titles are nothing. They're corporate artifices that often change with the prevailing fashion of the times.

Respect for an individual is something honest, genuine, sincere -- and most importantly, it's something earned. If you can't earn the respect of your colleagues and subordinates, you're not worthy of having your position respected.

I vowed to myself that I would get respect from others the old-fashioned way -- earning it -- and would never rely on a cheap and transient accident of title.

I have spent the last few years of my career trying to be like a boss I had in 2005. And only because I emulate him, have I survived the bosses that have come after. (my industry had a rotation of senior managers with little change in the workforce reporting to it)

I've learned quite a bit from them, though - and apply that knowledge to what my future will become.


The question of whether or not you learn more from a bad boss is a terrible question. Yes, I have learned from my bosses, but the lessons have been entirely different.

One boss (the better boss) has taught me to do my job. He helps when I need help. He answers questions and tries to be supportive. We occasionally talk about my performance, and he tries to find a way to help me be more effective.

The other boss (not as organized or thoughtful) has taught me self-preservation skills. Actually, let me rephrase that: I have learned them during my time with him.

My work product varies widely for these two bosses because I have such different feelings for them. Although the second boss means well, I would not want a colleague to go through the same experience.

Bad bosses are terrible. Imagine how much more productive we could be if we didn't have to deal with the ego, pushiness, and lack of compassion that is so prevalent in the workplace. Perhaps my bosses are the products of different work environments that led them to different beliefs, but I tend to think that it's just their personalities. And very little would change then into better or worse people.

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