9 Traits of a Terrible Boss

Lead with the opposite traits to motivate

We’ve all had bad bosses before. The ones that make us want to quit our jobs. The ones who stress us out even when we aren’t at work.

A study by Culture Amp showed that a lack of quality leadership is why one out of three people leave their jobs. We know these bosses aren’t good but have we thought about what exactly makes them bad or even toxic?

If we can put our finger on what the traits are that are forming us into mere miserable shadows of our potential, then we can make sure we aren’t like that when we lead.

I’ve been in military, corporate, and volunteer leadership positions for 25 years and have seen how applying the opposite of these traits can truly motivate your team.

1. Their Base Camp Is in the “CYA Zone”

A boss who is always playing it safe and not taking risks also probably isn’t making important decisions or standing up for their team when it counts.

These kinds of leaders aren’t motivating. They don’t dare to take a stand on decisions or stand up to the “higher-ups” to defend their team when needed. In other words, they’re always in Cover Your Ass mode.

These are the “yes-men” we hear about.

These are the fair-weather leaders. Perhaps acceptable in easy times, but they can be toxic and even dangerous when confronted with difficulty.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Boldness. Decisiveness. Moral courage. Standing up for their team even if that means hardship for the leader. Taking smart risks by making bold decisions.

“The one word that makes a good manager — decisiveness.” -Lee Iacocca

2. They Don’t Listen to Input From the “Front Lines”

Some leaders are too arrogant or unwise to realize the people on the front lines, their team, have a unique view of the challenges to the mission.

Often advice or truth from the front lines can be challenging to hear for a leader, especially if it contradicts that leader’s preconceived notions.

But keeping an “ear to the ground” and not be too proud to accept feedback is required to make the wisest decisions.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Listening. Attentiveness to the team. Welcoming of criticism and truth. This humility keeps an open mind to accept reality and adapt to it.

“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.” — Peter Nulty, Fortune Magazine

3. They Ignore Festering Problems

Many leaders think if they ignore something it will eventually go away. That’s like hoping a tumor will heal itself if no one thinks about it. It’s a naive stance that can lead to more problems down the road.

These leaders often create more problems than they solve because they dodge, not solve, problems as their MO.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Meeting problems head-on. Nipping them in the bud early. Having the courage to act even if action isn’t demanded at that time. Having foresight, courage, and initiative to be proactive in problem-solving than reactive.

“The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”— John Foster Dulles
Former Secretary of State

4. They Criticize in Public

There’s nothing more demotivating than your boss calling you out in public, even if you deserve it. It’s embarrassing. It makes an employee defensive and resentful rather than open and willing to improve.

Occasionally a good “call out” is what is called for, but that is very rare and must be done in a way that produces positive results. Most times it damages trust, motivation, and mission accomplishment.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Counsel fault in private and praise in public. When an employee knows the leader actually cares enough to spare their dignity they’ll be more open to caring what that leader has to say and doing something productive to rectify the problem.

“Praise in public, criticize in private.” — Vince Lombardi, American football coach

5. They Micromanage

Nothing kills initiative faster than micromanagement. Micromanagement tells an employee a leader simply doesn’t trust their decision-making skills enough to leave them alone. It’s offensive and degrading.

This may be one of the most toxic traits to productivity and employee potential there is. It’s also a tough one for hands-on leaders to avoid, but it needs to be avoided to make a team effective.

A leader needs to trust but they are also responsible for the outcome so it’s OK to verify or offer guidance. They just shouldn’t squash all will to self-operate when they do.

The balance between trust and verification is a delicate one.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Trusting your people. Expecting them to do their best on their own and letting them know of this expectation. Supervising but not micromanaging.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”-Steve Jobs

6. They Lie

A lie is a kryptonite to trust. And trust is the primary ingredient of a solid leader/team dynamic. If a leader lies, their credibility will likely be damaged for a long time or even forever.

Truth is truth and a leaders job is to ackowledge it, deal in it, spread it.

That being said, there are always ways to view and react to the truth that are more productive than others.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Always tell the truth even if it hurts. If it’s a hard truth, there is still a most productive way to look at it. Ways such as optimism, can-do spirit, and a full acceptance of reality.

“Leadership by deception isn’t leadership. It’s fraud.”
DaShanne Stokes

7. They Don’t Maintain Personal/Professional Balance

What if a boss is chummy with your equal and all business with you. How does that make you feel? You know as an employee that preferential relationship is yielding preferential treatment to your coworker.

This inconsistency in professionalism causes a team imbalance that can lead to resentment — a poison that kills motivation.

A boss can stay accessible and friendly, but should always maintain a the line of professionalism with their team, consistently, even in personal time.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Consistency and professionalism. Maintaining that line at all times, even outside of work.

“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” ~ Tony Blair

8. They Aren’t Consistent in Expectations/Example

A good boss is solid in their example of what they expect of employees. A do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do boss is never respected. A boss that changes expectations daily can breed exasperation and eventually despondency in a team.

Not setting the example is one of the most toxic traits a leader can adopt.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Consistency of expectations. Setting the example for what you expect day in and day out. A good leader is what they want their team to be.

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

9. They Blame Others While Never Admitting Fault

Their arrogance spawned from insecurity leads to autocratic leadership. It’s their way or the highway. You better not question it. If something goes wrong it’s always someone else’s fault.

In short, they blame. Blame erodes a leaders credibility like a tidal wave on a sand castle.

Blaming others is a tool virtually never used by good leaders.

The opposite traits that motivate:

Accepting full responsibility for everything that takes place within your team. If a team member fails, the boss takes the hit because the boss is responsible.

The buck always stops with good leaders.

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” — Nelson Mandela

Final Thoughts

Many things can make a boss bad or even toxic. To ensure you aren’t ever labeled as toxic, adopt the motivating traits. To recap what will keep you fresh and without toxicity:

  1. Courage in decisiveness.
  2. Listening to your people even when it hurts.
  3. Solving problems before they grow.
  4. Praise in public and criticize in private.
  5. Trust your people.
  6. Tell the truth.
  7. Maintain consistent professional lines.
  8. Set the example.
  9. Always take full responsibility.

Do these things when you lead and you’ll likely never earn the dreaded title of a bad boss!

Family Man. Leader. 3x Top Writer. MBA Strategy and Management. Marine Corps Veteran. Winemaker. emaxklein@icloud.com

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