Are you the Boss from Hell?

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, February 9, 2009

Are you the Boss from Hell? Chances are if you have to think about that, then you aren't. Bad bosses usually come to work each day wrapped in a thick blanket of obliviousness. Think of Michael Scott, the dunderheaded manager for Dunder Mifflin on the NBC sit-com The Office. He hasn't a clue.

A new survey of 8,038 workers from a variety of industries shows that the domain of bad bosses stretches far beyond the cubicle haunters of that fictional paper supply company in Scranton, PA. In fact, 43% of those 8,038 surveyed workers say they've quit a job at some point in their lives because of bad bosses.

Unfortunately, according to the survey, healthcare has its fair share of Satan's lieutenants. Included in those 8,038 workers surveyed between Nov. 12, and Dec. 1, 2008, were 634 workers at "large healthcare organizations with 50 employees or more." Tellingly, 21% of those healthcare workers—one worker in five—say they would fire their boss if they could. Just as with the at-large survey group, 43% of healthcare workers reported quitting at some point in their career because of a bad boss. In addition, 22% of healthcare workers rated the performance of their current bosses as great, 39% rated performance as good, 26% rated it fair, and 13% rated their boss' performance as bad.

"What makes a bad boss?" the healthcare workers were asked. The top two complaints by more than 86% of respondents were "doesn't listen to employees," and "talks down to employees," followed by "unreasonable demands," "yells constantly," and "steals other employees' ideas."

There are other tell-tale signs. Does the laughter choke off when you enter the break room? Are chirping crickets the only feedback you get at staff meetings? When you approach, do your workers dart their eyes, scramble to answering phones that aren't ringing, slap at the panic bar on the fire door, or just shudder and look down? Has someone defaced your company photo hanging by the bulletin board? Did they use a Sharpie to scrawl a Vandyke, horns and tail, and the caption 'Prince of Darkness'? These are clues.

Peter Stark, a management consultant from San Diego, identifies a heaping handful of dumb things that bad bosses commonly do in his new book Engaged: How Great Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love To Come Back To Work.

One of the biggest errors bad bosses make, Stark says, is in their inability to control their emotions. Usually, the emotion they can't control is anger, which in turn earns bad bosses a reputation for moodiness. "It's almost impossible to get rid of that label," Stark says. "Everybody is walking around the organization asking 'is it a good day or a bad day?' The key is to respond consistently and appropriately in all situations. The question I ask bosses is 'how much can you handle before you lose it?'"

Rash, impulsive decisions that send the whole organization into a needless tizzy also sap enthusiasm and productivity. "The boss shouts out a decision and everybody has to react, and then 30 minutes or 30 days later the decision has to be refined or changed," Stark says. "Involve others more in the decisions on the front end. Ask more questions. Get more engagement from the people who are going to be impacted by these decisions. It makes it so much easier."

Beware the bosses who take undue credit, because they are the same guys who will assess undue blame. "Everybody knows these guys. With them every meeting is like a warm up for an opera. 'Me, me, me, me, me,' " Stark says. "They love to talk about themselves when everything is going right, but when things go wrong they become masters at pointing out what's wrong and who we blame."

The Boss as Best Buddy is also a problem area. "To try to get people to like you will probably create problems for you as a leader," Stark says. "In the long-term best interests of the patients and the healthcare organization, you may have to make decisions that not everyone will like, but you need to make it and people will adjust to it."

There's the No Bad News Boss, who surrounds himself with people who've learned to tell him what he wants to hear. "If somebody has a contrary opinion, the leader gets hostile and rejects it. People eventually say 'I'm not even going to bring it up because it won't be appreciated or acted upon,' " Stark says.

There isn't enough space here to list all the archetype bad bosses that Stark has identified. However, the common thread that these bad behaviors share is a failure to communicate, which means listening as much as speaking. "The best bosses are the ones who ask questions and listen, versus the ones who come in and talk," Stark says. "The more leaders communicate, the more they indirectly tell the people they work with 'I really do care about you and value your opinion.' "

It's easy to joke about all this, but it's serious business too, especially given the demand for healthcare workers in this country and the costs associated with recruiting and training replacement workers. If one in five of your employees wants to axe you, you've got a turnover issue on your hands. Yes, recent studies have shown that the demand for healthcare workers may be softening during these unsettling economic times, as people with jobs hunker down. If your employee retention strategy is the recession, however, you probably shouldn't be a boss.

John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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