Bad Boss/Best Boss

This guest blog has been provided by Kevin Sheridan, best-selling author and innovator in the field of Employee Engagement.

There is a reason Hollywood produced a movie called Horrible Bosses, as well as its sequel. Listen in on conversations at a happy hour on any given Friday, and you will hear all about them. Bad bosses can be found at every level of management, and they often display the same characteristics.

During nearly all of my leadership development workshops, after teaching how important the manager-employee relationship is to improving employee engagement, I challenge the participants to become someone’s “best boss.” We then explore the qualities of a best boss. However, it is just as valuable to consider the opposite. What traits do horrible bosses most often exhibit?

Before getting into the details of a best boss, let’s examine traits of bad bosses.

The bad news

These negative behaviors will help you realize if you are working for a bad boss, and will allow you to reflect on whether you are exhibiting any of these traits yourself.

Narcissist. Me. Me. Me. Terrible bosses are endlessly self-centered. Everything is about them and not the people they manage or what is going on in their employees’ personal lives. It is never about the team, but rather it is all about how good they look. Conversely, great bosses lead with integrity, honesty, care, and authenticity.

Screamer. One of my last bosses believed there was a direct correlation between how loud he yelled and revenue growth. I can laugh about this now that I no longer report to him. Sadly, this trait pervades the workplace.

Last year I saw a LinkedIn post asking whether it is acceptable to yell at work. Shockingly, more than 40 percent of the 10,000+ comments defended screaming as an acceptable management behavior.

Bully. Bullies manage through fear mongering and intimidation. Often screamers as well, these people do not give guidance; they bully.

They also proactively create a culture of distrust, nervousness, and fear. Under their thumb, employees are worried about losing their jobs. Office politics begin to dominate employee performance. This bullying often includes lying about people behind their backs and leading active campaigns to turn friends into workplace enemies.

Unapologetic. Great managers are quick to realize their missteps or mistakes and offer an apology. Bad bosses never realize their egregious behavior and certainly never atone or apologize for it.

Suck-up. Bad bosses are notorious for spending little time with the people they manage. Instead, they spend their time sucking up to their boss and only trying to look good in their boss’s eyes.

Poor communicator. Not giving clear instructions is endemic to many bad bosses. They also frequently guard information and treat it as power.

In addition, they frequently contradict themselves or give conflicting instructions. Their direct reports spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decode or interpret what limited communication is proffered.

Terrible listener. Very much related to communication, bad bosses don’t listen. Even worse, they do not even care to listen. Whatever you say, the bad bosses hear what they want to hear. In addition, they interrupt constantly, and they are never fully present during interactions with employees.

Always right. These bosses have a compulsive need to be right, and consistently point out how others are wrong. They can never admit a mistake and never say, “I am sorry.”

Unavailable. Bad managers are rarely available. They are missing in action when needed most, especially in times of crisis, when critical decisions need to be made, or in employee situations that require sensitivity.

Never praises or encourages. Quick to criticize and slow to praise. Too many employees of bad bosses report that their managers have not said “thank you” in years. Given that recognition is the most impactful driver of engagement, this is one of the most egregious traits of a bad boss.

Blamer. Lacking any personal accountability, these bosses blame everyone else when something goes wrong. Lacking integrity, they often break the rules or office policies to shift blame onto others. This type of boss leaves direct reports high and dry when it matters most.

Unrealistic/Demanding. Bad bosses set goals that are both unrealistic and unattainable, often doing so because of trait #5 (sucking up). When these goals are not met, they blame their employees for not achieving them, labeling the employees weak, lazy, or poor performers.

Indecisive. Bad bosses live in fear of themselves, often incurring “decision paralysis.” This indecision stems from either a boss’s own fear of making a mistake or simply not having enough basic business intelligence to make the decision.

Micromanager. Whatever work you are performing, the micromanager is always looking over your shoulder and second-guessing every decision you make. This can be especially frustrating when combined with trait #13 (unable to make a decision).

Highly controlling, they demand every last bit of minutia and squelch any opportunity for innovation or creativity. You are to execute orders and report back. Command and control.

Tolerant of mediocrity and relishes the suck-ups. These bosses care more about whether employees suck up than how they perform. They are tolerant of employees who do average or subpar work as long as the employee sucks up and tries to make the bad boss look good.

Even if it is glaringly apparent that a poor performer must go, that person can remain in the position because of her ability to suck up.

Manipulative. Bad bosses are notorious for scheming and manipulating others, either for their own agenda or just for fun. It’s almost like a game to them, and they toy with people as though they are puppets. Sadly, this manipulation results in hurt feelings and an untold amount of wasted energy.

Vindictive. Heaven forbid you should ever cross, disagree, or publicly debate an issue with the bad boss. Questioning this type of boss makes him feel threatened, and likely to go after you to make you feel the same way.

Even if your motive for questioning your boss was well intentioned, when you’re dealing with a vindictive leader, it is sometimes best (or at least easier) to bite your tongue to protect yourself and your job.

Inconsiderate and shaming. Bad bosses are frequently rude, inconsiderate, and shaming. They use staff meetings as a forum to belittle, publicly humiliate, or shame employees.

Some of these behaviors are spawned by the bad boss’s own insecurities and fears. Many bosses feel better about themselves when ridiculing others.

Take credit for other peoples’ hard work. Ever work really hard on something, spending endless hours trying to deliver great work results to your organization, only to discover that your boss steals the credit for your hard work? If so, you have a bad boss.

Good leaders take pride in their team’s accomplishments and go out of their way to make sure higher-ups know who to thank for a job well done. Simply put, taking credit for someone else’s work is shameful.

Do any of those behaviors sound familiar, either because you’ve been on the receiving end or because you sometimes exhibit them? If so, you’re not alone. Watch out for bad boss behaviors that crush employee engagement. No one is perfect, but simply trying harder to be a good boss goes a long way to boost employee engagement.

The good news

So what are the behaviors and traits of a best boss? As fortune would have it, I discovered a revolutionary leadership study conducted by Duncan Ferguson, managing director of Vantage Leadership Consulting in Chicago. The study, conducted in 2013, scientifically discovered the most common traits of a best boss. The five most consistent behaviors exhibited by these managers are:

  • Leads from a higher purpose—demonstrates a purpose beyond self-interest and self-profit; a purpose beyond the organization that is put into action on behalf of the individual.
  • Activates potential—observes values, acknowledges and takes steps to activate the present capability and future potential of the individual.
  • Grants autonomy—imparts knowledge, business acumen, and big-picture thinking; establishes clear expectations; and creates an autonomous space for the individual to perform.
  • Conveys pervasive feedback—doesn’t miss an opportunity to provide constructive and reinforcing feedback.
  • Encourages risk taking to drive continual learning—fuels reasonable risk taking by allowing mistakes in an effort to promote continual learning, growth, and development.

The study also uncovered the seven most common personality traits of best bosses:

  1. humble, unassuming, and authentic (This was also at the top of the list in Harvard University Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George’s book on leadership, True North.)
  2. bright, very smart
  3. positive, optimistic, “can do” attitude
  4. fair and ethical
  5. demonstrates a sense of humor; fun
  6. thoughtful and thorough
  7. respectful
  8. competent.

Becoming someone’s best boss

So how can you or your managers become someone’s best boss? There are five simple ways to elevate the effect your managers have on your corporate culture and employee engagement. First, ask each of your managers to think of who their best boss was throughout their entire career; have them write that person’s name down on a piece of paper. Next ask them to write down the top three qualities that made that person their best boss.

The third step is to encourage your managers to pick up the phone and let that person know that they were their best boss, if in fact they had never done so. Then, ask managers to look back at the three best boss qualities they wrote down and aspire to become excellent on all three of those qualities. Finally, challenge them to become someone’s best boss.

I have heard back from hundreds of managers that I have navigated through this best boss exercise and have heard nothing but positive feedback. Leverage becoming someone’s best boss. It works.


This guest blog has been provided by Kevin Sheridan, best-selling author and innovator in the field of Employee Engagement.

Kevin Sheridan is an Internationally-recognized Key-Note Speaker, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and one of the most sought-after voices in the world on the topic of employee engagement.   He spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, helping some of the world’s largest corporations rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long- overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement.  His book, “Building a Magnetic Culture,” made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.  He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers. 

Kevin received a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1988, concentrating his degree in Strategy, Human Resources Management, and Organizational Behavior.  He is also a serial entrepreneur, having founded and sold three different companies. Kevin can be reached via email at, on LinkedIn at and on twitter @kevinsheridan12. His webpage is

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