I’ve had a lot of bad bosses over the years. One man threw a typewriter through his office window when he got angry. Another screamed at someone in front of the entire staff, reducing her to tears. When I worked as a television news anchor in Milwaukee, my male boss wouldn’t let me deliver the business reports because he said it wouldn’t be credible coming from a woman. When I challenged him, he didn’t understand why that was sexist and told me if I didn’t keep quiet, he would have me suspended. It’s unfortunate that in five decades of working, I remember so many bad bosses and only a few great ones.
So I started thinking about what set those good bosses apart from the bad ones and realized they had something in common. Behavior and communication. The good bosses were empathetic, listened, treated people equally, made you feel valued, jumped in to help, praised you for great work and created an atmosphere of trust.
They used phrases like:
- Thank you
- You did a great job
- We’re fortunate to have you
- How can I help fix this?
- What a great idea…let’s discuss this
The bad ones had different sets of rules for different people, created tension and stress in the workplace, took credit for others’ ideas and successes and often had such big egos that they prioritized their own agenda over the good of the team or organization. They said things like:
- That sounds like a personal problem
- This is our policy, I don’t make the rules
- If you don’t like your job, I can find plenty of people to replace you
- If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it
- I’m in charge for a reason
And some of the really bad bosses I’ve had put you down in front of others, creating such a toxic environment that in my case, I literally struggled to breathe due to the anxiety this person provoked.
My brother Jordan Friedman, a stress management expert and host of The Chill Factory podcast says, “We all react differently to stressful situations, but public shaming can supersize one’s stress response because the issue at hand is no longer contained and far less manageable.” He goes on explain that, instead of a sensitive situation being between a team member and their supervisor, it’s now been spread to numerous colleagues at a minimum.
Friedman says, “This dramatically increases the threat, embarrassment, and potential consequences we feel around the conflict which in turn increases the magnitude of the physical and emotional reactions we have to it. So, a disagreement between you and your boss might lead to a bad mood that goes away in a day, while being called out and ridiculed in front of others might result in poor sleep, trouble focusing and avoidance of others for weeks.”
That said, there are things we can learn from even the worst bosses. Being a boss to others reminds me of how terrible some people made me feel. As a result, I never put colleagues down or talk about them to others. I go out of my way to compliment good work and to be available if someone wants an ear. In short, bad boss experiences teach you what not to say or do.
Ironically, or call it telepathic energy, I was thinking about Max Tooker, my former news director when I worked in Huntsville, Alabama and one of my good bosses when the phone rang. It was Max whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades.
He said he followed me on Facebook and had thought of me over the years so thought he’d call and see how I was doing. As we chatted and caught up on our lives, my former boss did what made him such a good mentor. He asked questions. He listened. He shared stories. He was compassionate. Like the old days when I worked for him, he sought my opinion.
Interestingly, Max and I are very different. We come from different cultures, have different political views and different opinions on social issues. None of it matters. Good bosses respect opposing viewpoints and opinions of others. I told Max I’ve also remembered him fondly over the years and thought he was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Through the phone he blushed and said how flattered he was.
Good bosses inspire you to be your best self.