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Interviewing 50 ‘bad bosses’ to learn it only takes a few toxic behaviors for everything to go

When we set out to interview 50 “bad bosses” for a book about what traits defined an ineffective or damaging leader, we started by asking our professional contacts about their worst boss experiences. Sometimes, we knew these “bad” bosses personally, so we reached out to interview them.

And instead of Miranda Priestly, we found Leslie Knope: amazing individuals with remarkable personal histories, passion for their work, thoughtful philosophies on leadership, and seemingly, all the right answers. Somehow, though, these leaders had managed to undermine the confidence of their direct reports, who—usually after a couple of failed attempts to address their manager’s toxic behavior—suffered in silence. How could this be?

In these interviews, we heard all about the kind of leaders they aspire to be. The problem is, their teams had submitted them as “bad bosses” for behaviors they exhibited when they were under stress, frustrated, or feeling insecure. It turns out, stress turns us into different people and stokes our dysfunctional tendencies, which harm other people’s experiences with us.

After we’d interviewed the first handful of leaders, we got together and reflected: We also used to manage teams, and some of those employee relationships didn’t end well. Had we engaged in these same negative tendencies? To find out, we set out to interview our former team members and just listen. It became clear that we impact our team members much more with our words and actions than we ever thought.

We ended up running four workshops with leaders about the behaviors they display under stress that might destroy the courage of others. We led them through questions like, “When I’m under stress, what could I be doing that might destroy the courage or initiative of the people I work with?” and “What has a leader done in the past to destroy my own courage? What did they do or say?” We were able to identify seven of the most common courage-destroying behaviors:


  1. 1) Micromanagement. When we micromanage the people we lead, we tell ourselves that we’re helping them stay on track and manage challenging tasks. In reality, we’re creating a recipe for frustrated high achievers who feel a lack of trust and who will switch teams as soon as possible. The people left are those who wait to be told to do every little thing, afraid of acting because they feel you expect perfection.
  2. 2) Reacting with anger and judgment. We tell ourselves, “I’m passionate about this work, and anger or judgment is the appropriate response to this situation. We have to hold people accountable.” But what we get is employees who fear setting you off, so they withhold telling you about their mistakes or offering you the critical feedback you need for making good decisions.
  3. 3) Caring only about the deliverables and not about the team as people. When we do this, we tell ourselves, “I am driven to do great work, and I get great results. I hope my team will be inspired by my hard work.” But instead, your staff feel you don’t care about them, so they don’t care about you or your goals. They believe it’s more important to appear productive than focus on doing the right things.
  4. 4) Not reinforcing positive performance. When we fail to reinforce positive performance, we tell ourselves, “They know what their strengths are. I don’t need to reinforce that for them. Plus, we should be intrinsically motivated.” What do we get? Frustrated employees who feel like their efforts and strengths go unrecognized and lose the motivation to try harder or help their teammates. They may also resent others whose strengths are recognized.
  5. 5) Withholding negative feedback. When we withhold negative feedback from our teammates, we tell ourselves, “I don’t have time for a feedback conversation, so I’ll just fix it for them and wait until their performance review to bring this up.” Your attitude and body language tell them you’re not totally pleased, but they can’t know for sure what they did wrong. They wish you believed in them enough to invest in their learning and growth, and think you’re too passive-aggressive to say what you actually think and have the necessary hard conversations.
  6. 6) Ignoring their suggestions. Your rationale might be, “I don’t have time to consider their suggestion and figure out whether or how it will work. It’s on me to keep folks focused on priorities.” But the danger is, employees who feel ignored will either seek out other ways of pushing their idea forward (e.g., having someone else suggest it, going over your head) or become disengaged from the work.
  7. 7) Not dealing with an underperforming or toxic teammate. We tell ourselves, “That team member is a little hard to deal with, but they have strengths we need. Plus, I’ve talked to them, and they are making small improvements. It’s not that bad. I wish the team wouldn’t take it so personally.” But employees think less of you as a leader for not dealing with the employee who is bringing down the whole team, and they feel hurt that you don’t believe them when they tell you how bad the situation is. They may overreact or take seemingly small transgressions personally because, to them, that small transgression is part of a much larger systemic issue.

We, as leaders, have an important choice to make: We can either destroy our teams’ confidence and courage, or we can supercharge it.

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Diana Kander is an author, keynote speaker, and host of  The Growth League podcast, which catalogues rules for growth from remarkable women.

Ashley Good is the founder of Fail Forward, the world’s first failure consultancy, and supports people and organizations to discover their barriers to learning and innovation, and make the changes needed to acknowledge, create, and evolve from failure.

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