How Horrible Bosses Can Make Workers Miserable
Over my career, I’ve had more bad bosses than good ones. You probably have, too. At some point along the way, I realized that studying them could give me a valuable education in what not to do. I started taking notes.
My employees over the years have benefited from my observations of poor leadership in action. In management, knowing what not to do can be just as important as knowing what to do.
But instead of telling you how to avoid those pitfalls, I want to try something different.
My Screwtape Memo
One book I've read and loved is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The book contains a series of imaginative letters in which an elder tempter instructs a young demon how to destroy the faith of a new convert. It works like an anti-self-help book.
Well, think of the following list as a Screwtape Memo for the business world. If your goal is to frustrate and exasperate your hard-working employees, here are thirteen surefire ways to succeed.
- Be unresponsive. Let their emails languish in your inbox. Don’t return their voicemails in a timely fashion. Let them wait for weeks. Maybe they will solve the problem on their own or simply give up.
- Cancel meetings at the last minute. This is especially effective if they have had to travel to the meeting or do a lot of preparation. It’s a great way to show them that their time doesn’t matter.
Yell at them in front of their peers. This is even more dramatic if you can do it in front of their subordinates. Nothing quite says, “I don’t have any confidence in you” like public ridicule.
Change your mind frequently. This works best if you can get everyone excited about moving in a new direction. Get them to invest lots of time, energy, and money, and then suddenly change direction. Bonus points if you don’t explain your rationale and leave them guessing!
Don’t state your expectations. Be vague. Go silent. Let them wonder. When it comes time for their annual review, hold them accountable to specific goals that they should have guessed. This way you can make them feel like a failure no matter how much they accomplish.
Ask for things you know they don’t have. If they present a summary, say, “Where’s the backup for this? You don’t expect me to make a decision without the details, do you?” If they present the details, say, “Do you have a summary? You don’t expect me to wade through all these details, do you?” Either way, keep them off balance.
Focus on superficial things, ignore substance. Log how much time they actually spend at their desk or in the office rather than evaluating what they actually accomplish. Pay attention to their style and the way they dress. These are way more important than the quality of their work. Plus, they either have it or don’t. (Hint: They don’t.)
Micromanage to the nines. Insist that they keep you informed every step of the way on things you assign to them. Second-guess their decisions. Challenge their thinking. Question every expense. Give no slack. They should spend more time answering your inquiries than getting any work done.
Do all of the talking. You’re the boss, right? You got that job by being smarter, funnier, and more experienced than the next guy. Your subordinates need to shut up and listen to you—and take notes. These are pearls of wisdom—pearls!—that you’re generously dispensing.
Never praise them. Take them for granted. You are paying them to work for you. What else could they need? When they do a great job, brush by it and give them a tougher assignment. Keep raising that bar. You don’t want them getting “the big head.”
Catch them doing something wrong. Be quick to trumpet their mistakes. If you can do it in public, so much the better. If they're not perpetually discouraged, frankly, you are not trying hard enough.
Remind them you are the fount of all wisdom. The only valid ideas are your ideas. If you want their opinion, you’ll give it to them. Find ways to explain why their ideas won’t work, unless you say them in your words.
Be moody. This is key, probably the most important tip I can give you. A mercurial boss keeps everyone off-balance. Sometimes, you should be charming. Other times, be angry. But never let them know why. Keep them wondering if it’s them or something else. You want your people asking your assistant for a “weather report” before they meet with you. “Is Bill in a good mood today, or stormy?” they will ask. This will give them just enough hope to stay in the game but ensure that they also stay frustrated, dreading each time they come into contact with you.
So there you have it, bosses. If you want to aggravate and alienate your team, this is how. You're welcome.
Or, Try This Instead
But if for some crazy reason you don’t want to frustrate and degrade your employees, all you have to do is start by inverting these suggestions: be responsive, clearly state your expectations, catch them doing something right, and so on.
Still, I must warn you about something: With that much freedom and encouragement at their backs, your people might start to really enjoy their jobs and get things done.
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