Psychopaths? Narcissists? Downright idiots?
Who are the bad bosses we all deal with?
We surveyed over 1,000 Americans who had the misfortune of having to work under a terrible manager. We asked them:
- How long were you working for a bad boss?
- What things were they capable of doing?
- How do these things affect you personally and professionally?
- What are the most effective ways of solving the problem?
And much more…
1. Bad Bosses Are Just a Phase
Sooner or later you’ll end up having a bad boss. That’s life.
And once you do, you’ll get stuck with them for some time.
But how long exactly are people willing to put up with bad managers? That’s what we set out to find out first:
How Long Did You Work for a Bad Boss?
Percentage of respondents
< 1 year
Only 10% of respondents worked more than five years under a manager they regarded as a bad one. 27% had enough determination to work for them for 3 to 5 years.
According to the BLS data, median tenure with current employer is 4.2 years. So, we’d venture to say that bad bosses might be the reason to leave early for most people.
I tried a lot of things to deal with my bad boss but I eventually quit the job. Even though I loved it, it wasn't worth it.
This is definitely not good news for HR departments.
Especially in the light of what we discovered next.
2. Flawed Recruitment Processes?
Where do bad bosses come from?
A 2014 CEB study suggests that only about 15% of employees identified as high performers will become good managers.
Yet, according to the so-called “Peter Principle,” companies will put more emphasis on job performance in promotion decisions rather than on other characteristics that better predict a person’s leadership and managerial success.
This begs a question—
Do the majority of bad bosses consist of ‘A’ players promoted into leadership roles?
This could be a signal for HR departments to rethink their recruitment processes, and possibly shift its focus to testing and evaluating the candidate’s leadership and soft skills. Otherwise, they will end up in a loop of hiring bad managers who’ll make well over 50% of employees hand in their notice in under two years of getting hired.
Founder-run companies take heed—
One interesting finding is that in smaller businesses of up to 10 employees the bad bosses turned out to be… the company owners themselves (the rate here was almost 20% higher than the average).
In companies employing 200–500 people, bad managers were specifically recruited for the position in almost 50% of cases.
3. It’s All About the Money (Most of the Time)
Why don’t people run away from bad managers the instant they discover their true nature?
There are many reasons, but for most people these three are the top ones: money, hope for a better future, and the job itself.
What Made You Stay with the Bad Boss?
Percentage of Respondents
I couldn’t afford a pay cut.
I believed things would get better.
I liked the job and colleagues.
Interestingly, though, the youngest respondents (Gen Z) seem to be having less well-paid jobs than others as they were 13% less likely to admit that the job paid too well to leave. Also, they were 17% less likely to say that they didn’t want to lose the benefits the job entailed.
For Millennials, what seems to be a relatively bigger issue is not having the skills to transition out of the job, with about 35% of them saying this was exactly the case. That’s almost 10% above the average.
In fact, this last finding could be indicative of a certain cognitive dissonance. Our previous study on employee qualificaitons indicates that Millennials are the most likely to believe they are… more qualified than their managers. Well, this kind of conflicted attitude is anything but helpful if you think your boss is wanting in skills.
All in all, this gives a rather grim image of the youngest American workforce—stuck with bad bosses in jobs that don’t offer great salaries or benefits and lacking skills to change this.
What other reasons made people stay with the bad boss? Well, there are literally hundreds of them.
Here are some of the more interesting ones:
Why did you stay with the bad boss?
- Fear of retaliation within the company.
- Just waiting it out till I can retire.
- I needed the experience to get a new job.
- A single mother who couldn't afford to leave.
- I felt guilty leaving the company high and dry.
- I didn't want the quality of my boss to drive me away from a great job.
- He was extremely competent despite being an alcoholic.
- Sometimes it's funny to watch him struggle.
- I was working remotely, so the interaction was somewhat minimised.
- Good commute.
4. Weak and Powerless
Next, we wanted to delve into what kind of symptoms people experience from a prolonged toxic relationship with their superiors.
This is what we learned—
80% of respondents feel frustrated. No wonder. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not that easy to just leave, as the answers to the previous question clearly indicate.
However, it’s the second reason on the list we found particularly worrying. Especially from the employer’s point of view.
About 70% of respondents admitted they were feeling apathetic as displayed by the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Now, these symptoms are just as dangerous for the individual’s private life as for the entire organisation’s productivity. As they say, a fish rots from the head down.
I stopped caring about my job and it made it easier to ignore having a bad boss.
The list of symptoms is long but it’s worth noting that 50% of people with bad managers will also be having difficulties with sleeping and concentrating. Not to mention that over a quarter will suffer from decreased sex drive. In fact, this last symptom is 8% higher than average among employees aged 25–38.
5. Deadly Sins
What kind of bad things do people experience from their bad managers?
Here come the highlights:
- 70% of respondents were criticised in front of their peers, and 83% of them felt bad about it. Also, 72% of the surveyed population was treated in a rude or disrespectful manner by a bad boss and 90% didn’t like that kind of treatment.
- More than half of the respondents had their ideas and initiatives systematically killed, and a whopping 83% of them felt it was very wrong. Plus, it’s worth noting that 8% more women than men experienced this from their bad bosses.
- Almost 70% of respondents had a boss who was “always right.” How does it feel to have a manager who’s been everywhere, done everything, and bought all the t-shirts? More than 70% say it’s quite demotivating.
We also discovered some things that got us thinking, for example:
- Bad bosses aren’t that likely to send you harassing or threatening communications. Only 29% of respondents experienced this.
- 42% of bad bosses will be blaming others for their own failures. And out of those respondents who experienced this, as many as 84% feel it’s very unfair.
- Also, 50% of bad managers will be burdening their subordinates with their own responsibilities. And to almost 80% of the subordinates, this is a big problem.
So, that’s the general picture. But what makes your hair truly stand on end is what some individuals are capable of doing. Among countless stories of being yelled at, demeaned, and belittled, we found the following:
- Kicked me.
- Physically pushed me down into a chair.
- Grabbed my face with her hand as she lectured me, squeezing my cheeks as if I was a child.
- Didn't know I spoke Spanish, so she gossiped about me right in front of me to my coworkers.
- Maintained a poor working relationship and seemed to promote an us-versus-them mentality as well as not preventing needless infighting among staff.
6. Help! I Need Somebody. Not Just Anybody.
Luckily for us all—
Having a bad boss isn’t the end of the world.
We can always try and change things. But which methods are the most effective? That’s exactly what we asked our respondents.
The largest numbers of people choose the easy way out: almost 64% of respondents tried to avoid contact with the bad boss as much as they could. Is this strategy effective? Somewhat… 45% of those who tried said it was helpful. 25% said it didn’t do much for them.
The second most popular option was practising self-care after work as indicated by 62% of respondents. Out of those who tried this, 60% admitted it did bring about the desired effects. What’s more, even though more women than men practised self-care after work, 14% more men reported that self-care worked.
Those who chose to be assertive and spoke up for themselves comprised 60% of respondents. Unfortunately, this didn’t prove to be an effective solution as only 44% of those who tried were satisfied with the results, the rest didn’t see any improvement. Also, assertiveness seemed to have worked better for men (50% saw that things improved) than for women (40% noticed that it did have a desirable effect).
Interestingly, the smallest number of people were seeking help… with the HR department. Only 35% of respondents did this. And out of them 52% reported the situation improved while 30% didn’t actually see any change at all.
Let’s address the elephant in the room now.
What is the most effective way of dealing with the problem of a bad manager?
Here’s the thing—
There was no other answer that scored such a high result in terms of effectiveness. The second-best score belonged to the already mentioned self-care after work (with a meagre 60% in comparison).
When asked about other methods of dealing with the bad boss problem, respondents mentioned:
- I paid off my debts and found a less paying but more enjoyable job.
- I threatened to sue for discrimination. It helped me out a lot.
- I consulted an attorney. He has changed his approach to me somewhat. But, I am seeing it slip back to where it was.
- I suffered in silence until there was an organisation change.
- I took a leave of absence for mental health reasons.
- I tried to rally my co-workers against them, but that was not a smart idea.
- I went on a holiday/took sick days when deadlines approached. Boss was fired for lack of performance.
- I got together with my colleagues to brainstorm how to deal with our boss. It was slightly effective, however, we all ended up leaving the job eventually.
- I just don't talk to him anymore and don't care. It's been very liberating.
- I just tried to remember that I won’t be here for long, I’ll be home soon.
- Detachment—don't take things personally.
- I stopped caring about my job and it made it easier to ignore having a bad boss.
- Sounds terrible, but the only thing that stopped his bad behaviour was that he died. There was very little mourning at his passing.
- Gossiped to get the frustration out.
- I vented to people and that proved to be cathartic.
- I prayed to God for guidance.
- Drinking. Somewhat effective but, ultimately, made the workday worse so I mostly just discussed it with close friends to come to terms.
- Smoking pot… it works wonders.
This is what we learned from our study:
- For most people (47%), having a bad boss is a transitory period that most often lasts up to two years.
- Unfortunately, the largest number of bad managers have been specifically recruited for the position (40%).
- People stay with bad managers for three main reasons: they need the money, they believe things will get better, and they like the job and colleagues.
- Having a bad boss causes frustration (80% of respondents) and apathy (70% of respondents), with the latter symptom being especially damaging for the organisation.
- Criticising people in front of their peers and treating subordinates in a disrespectful manner are two main misbehaviors that bad bosses display. But it doesn’t end here, though. Some of the bad bosses resort to physical violence, sexual harassment, malicious gossip, or even pitting staff members against each other.
- Sadly, one of the least popular and effective methods of solving the problem is asking the HR department for help.
- The best solutions seem to be practising self-care after work (60% effectiveness) and… changing the job (over 80% effectiveness). However, respondents also mention substance use, getting the boss fired, or lawsuit threats as other effective methods of dealing with the problem.
For this study, we collected answers from 1,052 respondents through Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 50.3% males and 49.7% females. Our sample's average age was 39 with a standard deviation of 13.
This self-report study probed into people’s experience of having a bad manager. Respondents were asked 42 questions, most of which were scale-based or yes-no. The survey included an attention check question that prevented those who never had a bad boss from participating in the study. As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might have been affected by recency, attribution, or exaggeration bias. However, given the gender and age makeup of our sample, as well as the fact that the official labour force participation rate in July 2019 was 63%, the study can be generalised to the entire population.
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