04/05/2012 12:06 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

The Evil Boss Reconsidered

"I can't stand my boss."
"My boss is incompetent."
"I hate my boss."
"My boss is clueless."

It's a sad situation, really, when statements like these are at the center of so many conversations at work. But it's true: bosses are disliked, despised, disrespected and detested. More people leave jobs because of their bosses than because of pay issues, working conditions or the job itself. In fact, in a Gallup survey, fully one half of all workers would fire their boss if given the opportunity. So, if we want to improve our workplaces and work lives, we better start by looking at why so many leaders are falling short on such a grand scale.

I've spent the last decade or so on the other side of this question -- how to help leaders get better at what they do. It's more fun to look at the problem with a solution in mind, but I keep coming back to the fundamental fact that too many leaders really do wreak havoc on people and organizations. Why does this issue persist?

There are countless reasons, but a few stand out:

First: We promote people for the wrong reasons. We revere the mind and we promote people who seem smart -- regardless of their ability to deal well with people. We worship money and reward individuals for making it for our companies, no matter the collateral damage to people along the way. By the time a person has significant leadership responsibility, he or she has gotten loads of positive feedback -- money, praise, promotions, you name it. Why should they think there is anything wrong? And if we do notice the problems with these dissonant individuals, it's hard to convince anyone -- so we see again and again that the easiest thing to quiet the storm is to promote them again.

Second: Even if people want to learn how to lead, it's difficult, if not impossible, to get this kind of development at work today. Most of our bad bosses have not learned anything at all about how to manage or lead people -- that is, other than the basic plug-and-play that is the stuff of most leadership development programs in organizations. Fact: billions of dollars are wasted on leadership development programs every year, partly because they are designed and conducted in ways that ignore the vast proven practices for meaningful learning. The result: a few people learn something, most people learn very little -- and even those small gains are lost over time -- and we're talking lost after only a few weeks or months, not years. And even the companies that have good programs have sidelined most of them for the last four years. Four years! That's a generation in management terms, and accounts for the exceptionally low rate of employee satisfaction these days.

Third: These bad bosses are completely, totally stressed out. If they ever had self-awareness, self-management or the capacity to create a resonant environment, these skills have become casualties of the Sacrifice Syndrome. We expect so much of our leaders, work is incredibly demanding, and our home lives aren't easy either. Try working 24/7 for a few years, and see what happens. With that kind of stress, our brains are designed to shut down, to go myopic -- and in that state you can say good-bye to clear thinking, good judgment and positive relationships at work or home.

In the end, organizations create their own monsters. These bad bosses aren't usually evil. Don't get me wrong, I've met a few who are. I even worked for one. They are soul destroying. But so are the well-intended, generally good people who have turned into insecure, credit-seeking, micromanaging nightmares. What can you do?

1. The first thing you need to do is check to see if you are one of them.
If you have become the person everyone loves to hate, it's time for a change. It won't necessarily be easy, but if you want to get back to the person you really are, you'll need to take a hard look at what got you to this place. You'll likely need to make some pretty major changes to your lifestyle so you can deal with the stress that is inherent in your job. You may need to put yourself in a learning mode -- get a coach, find a good leadership program, develop daily routines that support you to be at your best more often, maybe even get a therapist. Yes, it might require even that. At the least, you're sure to need to focus on personal growth. Professional development simply doesn't happen without it.

2. If you're not the problem -- still a good leader, still creating a resonant environment for your team -- you need to find ways to protect yourself from the dissonance around you. You can start by making sure your psychological defenses are strong and in place. Make sure you know that the behavior directed your way that hurts so much is not about you. It's about your boss. It is his or her stress, not yours. It's her insecurity, his lack of understanding about how to manage people. Defend yourself by refusing to let your bad boss hurt you.

3. You can also take some solace in looking down and around you. Make sure that you're not "kicking the dog." Instead of passing on the bad behavior, do just the opposite. Get yourself to the point where you can share positive emotions, not negative. Create an environment that is full of promise and excitement, not doom and gloom. Engage your natural optimism and focus on hope. Focus on empathy and compassion so you can direct your activities toward supporting others. Hope and compassion are two ways to literally shift your brain into a mode that helps you deal with stress -- while you are also protecting and inspiring others.

4. Finally, you can stop the madness by promoting the right people. Don't focus so much on results, focus on how people get results. Look under the rocks -- what are they doing to people? Are they killing people to reach goals? Squeezing the life out of their team to get that last half percent of growth in the business? If so, it's not worth it when you consider the debris they have left in their wake. No matter how unpleasant it is, you really do need to learn to give people honest feedback about their leadership skills.

It's time we look beyond smarts and focus on emotional intelligence -- those are the skills that make good leaders and are the antidote to the bad bosses out there. It may be common sense, but it's not common practice -- so if we want high performing and compassionate organizations, it's time to turn this around.