January 4, 2002

On Managing Column, LA&M journal, Summer, 2002 (volume16, issue 3)

“She Took Everything But the Blame”: The Bad Boss is Back


John Lubans

-  Miss a shot, take off an item of clothing.  That’s the novel twist the Rutgers men’s basketball coach added to foul shooting drills. Nude losers do wind sprints. Humiliated, three team members transfer to other schools. It takes the New Jersey appeals court to rule the players can sue for this ridicule, terming it a violation of their civil rights. (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 27, 2001 )

- African explorer J. Michael Fay’s exploits are celebrated in the cover article of the August 2001 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The story documents Mr. Fay’s propensity for temper tantrums, sulking, and name-calling. The author is convinced that Mr. Fay’s abusive ways toward native bearers drove the expedition to success.

- Brill’s Content June 2001 article, “Cult of Bloomberg”, features the bad bossism of the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg’s News. Editorial staff daily endures a brutal grilling by their boss about the mistakes they’ve made or are sure to make. Former Bloomberg staffers claim they’ve had to go into therapy to cope with the residuals of public debasement.


These reports of egregiously bad bosses, coming in three consecutive months, gave me pause. Was the much-reviled bad boss of yore now getting more respect than deserved. Was Mary Parker Follett’s wisdom from the 1920s about the folly of ordering people about now a relic of another era. Maybe, “bad bossism” was developing into an accepted leadership style?

There’s little doubt that workplace bullies have been encouraged by our national economic swoon. Since many corporations believe their survival depends on reducing costs and becoming “lean and mean” who better than bad-to-the-core bosses to lead that effort? The irony is that a few years ago Dr. Deming of TQM fame was advising this same corporate  leadership to “drive out fear” from their workplaces.  Fear as corporate fashion is back, with a vengeance.

Thinking back on the good and bad bosses I’ve worked with in libraries, I wonder why I viewed them that way? Were they inherently good or  bad? Was a boss’ goodness or badness in the eye of the beholder or was it a personal trait?  For that matter, what about my own leadership? For a few, because of differing beliefs on the end-purpose of our work, I was a “boss-from-hell”. For others, I was OK. This mixed review suggests some of the complexity in the good boss/bad boss discussion.

No one arrives on the job immutably set in his or her ways of leading. A combination of personal experience, work environment and circumstance contribute to leadership behavior and to how one is rated, good or bad. If a manager makes necessary but unpopular changes, some of the impacted staff will say they’ve got a real s.o.b. for a boss. A manager who dawdles on change and stays out of the staff’s way, may be seen by some as a good boss. In truth, the one who brings about positive change is a good boss while the one who accommodates staff resistance is ineffective.

Some incompetent-appearing leaders may not understand what they are supposed to be doing - they’ve never been told what their role is or, if they’ve been told, that’s not how it works in practice. Some are caught up in negative administrations - try as one might, the negative administration foils every positive idea. Another contributor to a good boss looking bad: tenured staff who balk at any change that threatens their comfort zone.

In one of my workshops I give participants a self-test on “theory x” and “theory y”.  (In brief, theory x managers supervise closely, while theory y managers are more hands-off.)

Participants take the test twice, for how they supervise others and for how they want to be supervised. Then the participants arrange themselves around the room by their scores for how they supervise. There’s usually a wide distribution from extreme x to extreme y.

They re-arrange themselves - this time by the score for how they want to be supervised.  There’s usually a total shift to the theory Y side of the room.  Those with a strong theory X inclination in supervising others find themselves wondering “Why am I the boss that I would not want?”

According to library consultant Maureen Sullivan, in a 1997 handout, this is how effective leaders practice their leadership:

Inspire shared vision
Enable others to act
Model the way
Encourage the heart
Challenge the process

These are lofty, yet attainable, goals. They are well worth the requisite effort because leaders who achieve these levels will inspire staff to do their very best. Leaders who do not aspire to these levels will impede their organizations. 

But, paradoxically, depending on where we work, not all of us will be permitted to reach these goals. Your boss may mark down a supervisor who “challenges the process”. Or, there may not be a vision to share.

In my experience, there are numerous library leaders without a glimmer of a vision, certainly not of their own invention. They do excel at rehearsing and maintaining a tradition

Or, if your library is part of a “command and control” organization, you will have little opportunity to “enable others to act”. A middle manager is in an uphill battle when:

Decision-making is hierarchical.
Organizational structure is rigid.
Information flow is filtered.
Supervisors micromanage workers.
Work-process is “by-the-rules”.
External feedback is met defensively.
Budget is secret.

Lest you think I am suggesting that all bad bosses are products of their environment and personally blameless, I can assure you there are bosses who are atonal in their leadership style: bad.

They tell a story at the world renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A musician in this self-managing, conductor-less orchestra had a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality. As a team member, she would contribute to and support the participatory rehearsal process. But, whenever she was the nominal leader for a musical piece she’d undergo a personality change. She transformed into the worst kind of conductor: domineering and intolerant. Apparently, when called on to lead, this musician’s sole idea of leadership was the one most abhorrent to her colleagues.     

Similarly, I’ve seen a few library peers who profess a participatory management style turn into Mr. Hydes once they get the key to the executive suite. Closing down decision making and filtering information is their personal preference. It is also symptomatic of the fear driven illusion about being “in-control”. A parent organization often encourages a library director’s pursuing this fantasy. The boss’s boss wants clarity about who is in charge. Anything that suggests groups other than designated leaders are making decisions can make upper level bosses nervous.

It’s remarkable that micromanagement survives after decades of workplace research. The research conclusions are clear:  when you involve staff in making decisions about their work you get the best results. No one responds well to being ordered to do something. If you want the best results, you will give people the greatest freedom permissible to figure out ways to do their work. This is how organizations become productive and creative and are able to move past the status quo.

A profound inhibitor to best leadership practices is a manager’s inability to address conflict in effective ways. Like the above x and y test, I give my workshop participants a test on how they resolve conflict. The vast majority prefers and practices these strategies: compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. These can be legitimate strategies, but if they are used to excess a library’s progress will grind to a halt. The two least used strategies, competing and collaborating, hold the most promise for moving an organization forward.

You, the boss in conflict, have choices to make: give in (become a weak boss) or fight (become a “bad boss”). Many directors, all too understandably, compromise on some version of the former, and the organization meanders along. A few library leaders hunker down and fight for their vision and principles. They “win” but pay an extraordinary price.

My recommended option follows the premise that entrenched staff and en-bunkered administrators are fearful of something. Both groups are articulate in laying blame and resisting change but are inarticulate about what is really driving their attitude – fear.  Real reasons for resistance are never explicit.

I was working in an organization with serious conflict between staff and an embattled administration. In a town meeting, one of our best support staff encouraged us to establish a Trust Committee.  Well-intentioned, it labored at ways to build trust in an environment of mis-trust. After several months, the committee’s enthusiasm waned and it stopped meeting.

Looking back, I am convinced the Trust Committee was a lost opportunity. I would now clarify the group’s purpose: To increase trust and to decrease fear.

And, I would provide ground rules for their work, with the explicit hope that they become organizational norms:

No topic is off limits and no retaliation.
Respectful behavior at all times:

Zero tolerance for vilification of past or current employees
Zero tolerance for talking about others behind their backs

Confidentiality in all matters.
Everyone has the same information.
All share responsibility for finding and implementing solutions.

Like this essay started out, it is easy to blame organizational ills on bad bosses – there’s no shortage of bad boss stories. The term “bad boss” returns over 800,000 Internet hits. What’s more difficult, but rewarding, is exploring the underlying drivers to good boss/bad boss behavior.  Start with yourself. The more we know about why we are the way we are, the better we can be the leader we want to be.

Author’s note: John Lubans is a librarian and a facilitator of experiential workshops. His latest is Attitudes: Changing Problem Behavior. E-mail: john@lubans.org.  


Mary Parker Follett concludes that “…to demand an unquestioned obedience to orders not approved, not perhaps even understood, is bad business policy” in her chapter “The Giving of Orders” in the book edited by Henry C. Metcalf, Scientific Foundations of Business Administration, Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. 1926.

Dr. Deming’s “14 points” appear in Scholtes, Team Handbook, Madison , WI :Scholtes,1990. Chapter 2, Page 4.