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The Worst Boss Ever

When I walked away for the final time I just kept thinking, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with THAT anymore!’.

I’m sure you are familiar with the feeling, that overwhelming sense of relief when you’re finally free from ‘that’ boss. You know, the reason you dread coming to work, are considering a career change, the cause of your stress and sleepless nights. It would be easy to assume this post is about someone from my professional past. There are elements in the upcoming scenarios that, to an extent, are based on experience. But with some reflection on my past leadership opportunities, sadly I have probably been that person to someone as well. Rather than point fingers or blame, the purpose of this post is to focus on what makes someone, even me, THAT boss and how to avoid that fate in the future.

She was a manager, not only in title but in the way she led her team. Her catch phrase was ‘go, go, go’. And I hated it. She was motivated to be successful but at the expense of others. She made no attempt to grow, coach, or encourage anyone. She did recognize and reward employees, unfortunately only those put up big sales numbers. And even that was by publicly posting your sales numbers and highlighting the ‘stars’ and the ‘duds’. If you weren’t putting up the numbers, you got the shifts that gave you no chance to change the trend. She loved money, was captivated by it, and truly felt she was destined to be great, as measured by money. We all dreaded seeing the schedule each week, hoping not to work during her shifts. She tried to set examples but honestly wasn’t capable of doing so, at least not one we’d want to follow.

He believed he was a leader, thought he had created a team environment. But for a long time, he had to do so much on his own that he’d grown to trust no one but himself. His method of recognizing employees was catching them doing things wrong. Not with the goal of growing or teaching them but to ‘hold them accountable’. The teachable moment was not in this leader’s toolbox. Instead, this leader was a master of the ‘censure letter’. The good ‘ol ‘thou shalt’ letter, it does nothing to grow people but rather is used as evidence to delete someone from the team. In this realm, he was a true sith lord. He was proud of the electronic folder he’d accumulated over the years of writing up employees for their transgressions against compliance. He thought his leadership team respected him, maybe even loved him. His unfortunate reality was they feared him, were scared to make mistakes, and were convinced he was looking for reasons to eliminate them from the ‘team’ one by one. Trust did not exist anywhere in his organization, he trusted himself and that was all he needed.

What made these two people examples of the ‘worst boss ever’? It’s easy to point out what they did wrong, leading through fear, being motivated by money. Truth is, what made both of them terrible bosses was where they chose to place their focus. In each of these partially true stories, the leader made a decision (conscious or not) to focus on work that would not result in positive differences or changes. In each situation, the leader chose to forgo growing a positive culture and instead worked to ensure those below them knew who was the unquestioned boss.

A focus on compliance will get you just that, people who comply with ‘the rules’, ‘the policy’, or your ‘orders’. When a leader puts their primary focus on compliance, rule following may well be the outcome. The intended consequence of people doing what they are told can easily be achieved. Write up a few team members and word spreads, don’t cross that guy! But what if the problem you are trying to solve is more than just people not following the rules? What if the issue runs deep in the culture of your organization? What if the solution to the problem requires people to think differently, to be collaborative, to take a risk? This is the unintended consequence that comes with a focus on compliance. If you merely aim for compliance those you are charged with leading will not be willing to take risks. They will be fearful of the dreaded letter or being marched out of their office with a box of their stuff. Compliance is not the answer to moving an organization. Great leaders know they must give their people the type of culture that allows them to take risk without the fear of failure. Great leaders will allow different thinking and, say it isn’t so, will reward that thinking. If you choose to focus on compliance, know this…you are NOT a leader, you’re just a manager.

Much like compliance, being motivated by outside numbers is never the way to lead a group of people. Whether that numerical focus in on dollar signs, test scores, or approval ratings placing high value on numbers will not end well for a team. Remember the big push for the SMART goal? Oh yeah, I am as guilty as anyone of drinking this kool-aid. No, I’m not saying SMART goals are wrong or bad, they actually can be good. What I am saying here is if the SMART goal becomes the ‘be all, end all’ of the organization, you have a problem. When the focus is placed on achieving only that goal, employees may well set that bar low enough to avoid the negative repercussions of missing the goal. Worse yet, as the leader we might allow them to do so. Results oriented leadership is not a flawed system, but without having a culture that allows people to step out, take risk, and not fear reprisal, the result is little to no change.

As a leader, I have made more than my fair share of mistakes. As someone who’s been in their line of work for well over 20 years, I have seen leaders make poor choices and become ineffective leaders. I have also made some excellent choices and decisions and observed great leaders do the same. I feel like, as learners, we can choose to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, or we can simply repeat them. I’ve made my choice, I choose to be intentional with everything I do, to not lose my focus on culture, climate, and relationships. I choose to keep my eyes and energies dialed in on making an impact on people.

Ineffective leaders can find opportunity to punish, make an example of those who make mistakes, to push compliance. Great leaders know how to find teachable moments in everyday life. As a leader we make choices every day – make sure you choose wisely.

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