THE BLOG

If You Were a Horrible Boss, Would You Even Know It?

01/31/2014 10:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

"Is your boss a slave-driving psycho?" This is what a poster for the 2011 movie Horrible Bosses asks. As the movie's box-office popularity attests, most of us have worked for a horrible boss at some point.

In a brilliant piece on the subject, my friends at The Washingtonian review some especially hilarious, and horrifying, examples. One boss placed an electronic ticket machine outside his office, refusing to see his employees unless they took a number. Another forced employees that he believed said something "stupid" in meetings to stand on their chairs. My favorite was from a server at a crawfish restaurant: not only were the servers required to put bibs on their customers and wink at them, but the manager's definition of success in the job was to "have a stalker."

Luckily, smart organizations understand that horrible bosses are bad for business. One study of a Fortune 500 commercial bank found that, on average, poor leadership was associated with $1.2 million of operating losses, and that excellent leadership was associated with $4.5 million in operating profit. That's not chump change, people!

Most Horrible Bosses Don't Know They're Horrible

Here's where it gets disconcerting. A series of studies from the Center for Creative Leadership reports that half of managers are ineffective. That means there's a one in two chance that you're a horrible boss -- or at least an imperfect one.

Generally, I see two kinds of "leadership gone wrong." The first is what I call the "Cool Parent Leader," who focuses on people at the expense of results -- they're so interested in being liked and keeping everyone happy that nobody gets anything done. The second type is the "Trail of Dead Bodies Leader," who focuses on results at the expense of people. They might create short-term results, but it's only a matter of time before their team starts to burn out, hate them, or head for the hills at the first opportunity.

As a manger, do you see a piece of yourself in either of these archetypes? Or, to be more direct, if you were a horrible boss, would you know?

In the past 12 years, as a speaker, author and executive coach, I've been living out my personal quest to rid the world of horrible bosses. I've met few managers who get up in the morning and say, "Today, I am going to be the worst boss ever! I'm going to degrade my employees and upset everyone as much as possible."

So why are there so many bad bosses? They're bad because everyone is afraid to tell them. And generally, as you climb the corporate ladder, fewer and fewer people tell you the truth. This is terribly unfair when you think about it. What's a horrible boss to do?

Almost Anyone Can Become a Better Leader

In my new book, Bankable Leadership, I define leadership as "a series of learnable behaviors that help people and organizations realize their greatest potential." The most important word in that definition, I think, is "learnable." This isn't just my opinion. The science of leadership is clear: 70 percent of leadership is made.

In my experience, if they truly want to, 96 percent of the population can improve their leadership effectiveness (the remaining 4 percent are what we call sociopaths, whose brains are physically unable to develop real connections with others). But for the rest of us, there's no reason we can't improve.

The journey to become a better leader is an incremental one -- I can't give you a silver bullet, but I can give you three proven steps that will put you squarely on the right path.

1. Know Where You Stand

Just like you can't start a weight-loss program without getting on a scale, you must begin by learning the truth about how people see you. Use your resources and gather the facts, whether it's through an assessment (I have a free one available on www.bankableleadership.com) or feedback from people in your world who will tell you the truth.

2. Focus on One Thing at a Time

In businesses, research by Booz & Company shows that as the number of goals increases, revenue declines. Similarly, leaders often choose too many development goals ("This year, I'm going to learn how to give constructive feedback, build positive relationships, and improve my negotiation skills!"). Do yourself a favor -- have the discipline to focus on one developing one skill at a time. It is far better to make progress in one area than to make little or none in three.

3. Practice Every Day

Most leaders are guilty of what I call "delusional development." This is the futile hope that just by wanting to get better at something, it will magically happen. But as the saying goes, hope is not a plan. The amount of deliberate practice you choose will be proportionate to your improvement. So get up every day and make the world a practice field for your development. Some days might go better than others, but you will always learn.

So don't lose faith. Great leaders are made, not born, and real leaders improve incrementally. With a sense of openness and commitment, even the worst bosses can go from horrible to bankable.