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Why everyone needs a bad boss

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This is a guest post by Dr Gavin Symanowitz of FeedbackRocket.com. It originally appeared in Finweek (21 June 2012 issue).

Everyone should work for a bad boss. I know this seems to be strange advice, especially coming from someone who is dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in organizations. However, working for a bad boss can often have positive effects. Let me explain.

A boss from hell

Early in my career, I worked in the Treasury division of a second-tier bank. On one occasion, a senior executive from Merrill Lynch came to visit us on a fact-finding mission to decide whether or not to establish credit lines with us. (In hindsight, ironically, we should have been checking him out instead!). This was a big deal for us and the day kicked off with an introductory meeting in the boardroom. My boss Glen* pulled me along to observe.

Barely five minutes into the meeting, Glen started shifting in his seat. He leaned to the left side, lifted his right butt cheek off the seat – and let one go. LOUDLY. Then he stood up, waved his hand in front of his nose and remarked “Whew! That was a rotten one”. He promptly walked out, leaving me alone with a rather dumbfounded visiting executive. I didn’t know what to say. I ended up sputtering something like “Yes … that was a rotten one”. Which was actually true – Glen used to pass wind often in the dealing room, so I had basis for comparison.

Glen was particularly badly behaved in restaurants. Brokers often used to take us out to  lunch – mostly for sushi since that was Glen’s favourite. Glen had a short attention span, and became very disruptive when he got bored. If he lost interest in the conversation, he would start playing with his food. His favourite game was to rest the thin end of the chopsticks on the little wooden stand and then carefully balance pieces of sashimi on the thicker end. Then he’d bang his fists down on the short end, catapulting the pieces of sashimi against the wall. Sometimes they’d stick to the wall and slither down, other times they’d hit our hosts in the face.

It’s amazing that Glen was allowed to get away with this behavior. The big bosses turned a blind eye because Glen was an exceptional trader and brought in vast sums of money for the bank. Sad, but true.

Why I’m happy I worked for Glen

I worked for Glen for about two years. During that time, I learned more about management than any other time in my career. More specifically, I learned about bad management. I learned how negative behavior impacts on staff. I learned how people disengage and withdraw when faced with destructive leadership. In other words, I learned how not to manage people. Without a doubt, the experience has made me a better manager today.

Working for Glen also taught me to appreciate good managers later in my career. We only truly appreciate something if we’ve experienced the absence of it. Most people don’t truly appreciate their health until they get sick. They don’t truly appreciate their freedom until it’s taken away. And it’s the same with management – we don’t truly appreciate the benefits of a great manager until we’ve had a bad one.

As the founder of FeedbackRocket, I’m often asked by clients “What makes a great manager?” Over the years, I’ve realized that there is no single correct answer to this question. The answer is different for each person. Very often, the answer is driven by people’s experience of their managers in the past – and particularly their bad managers. So if your previous boss was a lying cheat, then you tend to value honesty and integrity in your current manager particularly highly. And if your previous boss was isolated and uncaring, then you tend to appreciate a manager who is an excellent mentor and provides useful feedback, and so on. Having a bad manager helps you to define what you value and appreciate in a good one.

Everyone should work for a bad boss. But only once. Life’s too short.

* name changed to protect the not-so-innocent

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

One thought on “Why everyone needs a bad boss

  1. Great story! It’s interesting that organizations hire for credentials and experience, when so many of the ingredients in a successful organizations are “soft” skills, like leadership, influence, enthusiasm, tact, and – yes – manners. I think it’s fair to say that every boss (and every employee) has their strengths and weaknesses. I agree that working for a bad boss makes us more appreciative when we get a “good” boss, but I suspect it also has a way of making us more self-aware… and that’s always a good thing.

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