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CIO Unplugged 2/1/12

February 1, 2012 Ed Marx 17 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

The Bad Boss

New town. New job. I was stoked over what was essentially a startup within an enterprise. As a visual learner and teacher, I asked the office manager for a whiteboard.

No go. The president wanted to keep corporate operating costs low. No worries. I went to Staples, and for the cost of a Starbucks Grande Red Eye, I bought myself a whiteboard.

Before I had a chance to hang my would-be art piece, my boss stopped in and frowned. “What’s this?” After I explained my reasoning, he said, “Take it out.” He wanted all the offices to have the same minimalist look and feel.

Well, my kids loved it. That whiteboard became central to their homeschool activities. I’ve used it over the years for meetings at home.

Little did I know, the rejected whiteboard was only an omen of the legalistic reign under which I was now employed. I was tempted to pack up and head back south. After all, I had a 90-day “get-out-of-jail-free” card from my former employer who would graciously welcome me back. Our old home had not yet sold.

Tempted as I was to escape, I knew running away was wrong. If I quit now, I would never learn perseverance. I had made a commitment and I would keep it, no matter how aggravating. I knew I would use this challenging experience to prepare for the future. Angry and disillusioned, I stuck it out.

Most of us have had a manager who’s aggravated the heck out of us. National employee engagement scores from Gallup suggest that many are presently in such situations. Web sites such as Really Bad Boss are extremely popular. Numerous best-sellers have been written on the subject. And did you ever ask yourself why The Office and Dilbert are such big hits? Because we can all relate on some level to bad bosses. I suspect all of us will have the opportunity to encounter one along the way. This was mine.

I make an effort to understand these concerns because I don’t want to be a bad boss. And I’m very aware of my potential to become what I hate. We’re all susceptible.

That said, I’ve been blessed to work with predominantly good bosses. So here is what I learned to make the best out of bad-boss situations:

  • Honor leadership. Part of my career plan is based on the premise of honoring those in authority over me. This can be tough. Clearly, you should never turn a blind eye to unethical behaviors or abuse. I am solely referencing a difficult and disagreeable boss. Actively give honor to them. It may not change them, but it will change you.
  • Make your boss famous. Another toughie. Why would you make a bad boss famous? Because if you can make them better, there’s a chance your situation will improve. Don’t talk up how wonderful your division outcomes are, but give the glory for good things to your boss and take your lumps when things are not so good. Leadership demands humility. “There’s no limit to the amount of good one can do as long has he doesn’t care who gets the credit.” Author unknown
  • Take the good. Most bosses are bosses because they have done something good and have the capacity for more. Seek out the good and apply it to your career. My anti-whiteboard boss taught me the importance of having a “kitchen cabinet,” developing key informal relationships that serve as a sounding board and advisory committee. Life is too short to not learn from all circumstances.
  • Check the mirror. Take inventory of the bad and look for signs of these traits in yourself. If you find one, pull it out. Guard against bad-boss behaviors creeping into your own style. If your boss is inclined to knee-jerk reactions, don’t start flailing your arms every time you are faced with a challenge. Recognize bad-boss behavior and never replicate.
  • Leading up. This might seem impossible, but keep faith that you can influence a change in your boss. Lead by example. Although your voice may not be heard, your actions will be noticed, subconsciously or otherwise.
  • Think long term. Look ahead and remind yourself that today’s actions dictate tomorrow’s decisions. If you quit when things are tough, you will become a quitter. Stick things out. Don’t tap out too quickly.
  • Speak no ill will. Avoid the trap of complaining about bad boss to other people. This will only exasperate the situation and make it worse than it is. Speak blessing instead.
  • Seek first to understand. Figure out the drivers for bad boss behavior. They are likely stress induced. Most bad bosses are well-intentioned leaders who’ve lost their way because of personal and/or professional pressures. Identify the sources of stress and you might help reduce or eliminate it. At the very least, you will sympathize and realize the behavior is not a vendetta against you, albeit it feels like it.
  • Avoid a bad boss. Forbes shares five tips to spot a bad boss in an interview. Gather your own references. Call the person who most recently held the position. Call on the other direct reports. If you are well networked, get the internal buzz on your potential boss. Many a bad-boss situation could be avoided if you research diligently and listen to what you hear. Don’t believe things will change because you believe you are better than your references. They won’t.
  • Joy in suffering. This is the toughest one for me, but the most important. “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance builds character; and character produces hope.” It’s an upward, spiraling cycle throughout life.

2-1-2012 6-06-56 PM

So if you have a bad boss, you have a choice. Life is too short to be in a bad boss situation, but you owe it to yourself, your people, your boss, and your organization to make it work.

I persevered with the anti-whiteboard boss. I established a “kitchen cabinet” as I’d learned from him. I was promoted out of that division and into corporate, where I became CIO. Hope never disappointed me.

And then I purchased the biggest damned whiteboard ever made.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. That was awesome Ed! I met you at the Southern California HiMSS chapter event a couple months ago and was so impressed with your presentation. This article you wrote is a great message of hope. When I saw that it was you who wrote this I was ot surprised based on what I already believe about your character. May God bless you Ed!

  2. Another great post Ed! Excellent words of wisdom for all of us. Bad bosses are everywhere. If you have not had one yet, you probably will. And these points will serve you well. It’s always encouraging to see the practical application of biblical principles in the workplace. Thanks for “shining a light” on one of the dark places we might encounter.

  3. I’ve been on both sides of this equation! Ed, I love your focus on learning and being an opportunity for others to learn from you.

    Nice work.

  4. That’s great if you have a bad boss and can rise above it. But what about those bad bosses that continue to crush the souls of their employees, provide poor leadership, and create chaos? I’ve watched people like that abuse their employees, block promotions or transfers, and destroy entire hospital divisions because there’s another “bad boss” above or there’s no one willing to step in and stop the abuse.

  5. I think “bad boss” is workable, but what do you do with “bad organizational culture”, whether “legalistic” or, in my case, “entrophy-loving” (think 2nd law of thermodynamics)? I am a big fan of perseverance, but a healthcare organization who thinks you can maintain the status quo and survive what we all know is coming down the pike is one that needs more than a CIO who perseveres. At some point, you have to cut your losses and move on.

  6. It’s important to distinguish between the two types of bad bosses: bosses that are generally good but have some bad behaviors, and bosses that are toxic. The toxic ones are bosses where you simply can find nothing good about, they’re destructive to your career by action or inaction, make poor decision after poor decision, don’t have the respect of their peers, etc. The first one is far more common (in fact, is any boss perfect?), and I’ve had the opportunity to work for both.

    I think the above advice applies to only the first kind. You can learn a lot from any boss, and if they have positives, figure those out and how to replicate them.

    The toxic boss, on the other hand, you just have to get away from. I worked for one for a year, and I promised I would never do that again; not only was it a wasted year, it actually set me back more than that year because I was painted with the same brush that he was. If you’re only learning good things by doing the opposite of what your boss is doing, it’s time to move on.

    I highly recommend the book Career Warfare, which has a lot of great examples for how to manage your personal brand, and how that effort relates to different types of good and bad bosses. After reading that, you’ll resign the toxic ones the next day.

  7. It’s always a joy to read your posts, Ed. Thank you for sharing this practical wisdom from a truly inspired source. 🙂

  8. Thank you for this, I was thinking about all of these things for the past week, reflecting on why I left my previous organization. Leadership is hard to find and harder to keep with bad leadership around.

  9. Ed, thanks for another compelling read. I too believe in the importance of constant learning and sometimes, if you’re learning what “not to do or be” that’s a lesson well earned. Never give up, but always learn and determine when those key learnings can benefit another organization. Have a great day and keep it coming!

  10. Your advice is timely–thanks for reminding me there’s a reason they are the boss and not me and that reason is worthy of my respect, if not my liking.

  11. Excellent post Ed!

    You obviously have wise counsel. I think we read from the same play book. Wish I could practice this consistently.

    I’m continually working on that!

  12. Some bosses are simply Psychcopaths. That issue has
    been getting some attention and needs more. Having worked for a few, you can do your career severe damage as your employer can see you as “damaged goods” or “has baggage” once they get rid of the bad manager, or if you come from a previous employer with a bad culture.

  13. As Arkansas Dave pointed out, “Bad organizational culture” is a much more intractable problem than a “bad boss”.

    The reason that “bad” people – unethical ones, short-sighted ones, de-motivating, controlling, vindictive, dis-honest ones – is because people who seek those attributes in their leaders CHOOSE those people for leadership positions.

    In organizations with healthy cultures, “bad” bosses are culled, at least eventually. But in unhealthy cultures, “bad” bosses become the example.

    One of the greatest, most affirming feelings is to leave an organization with an unhealthy culture and have the time and space to look back and realize that there’s nothing wrong with you for being honest, straightforward, creative and ethical. Unhealthy cultures can do that to you!

  14. Thank you for the positive insight to an all too common situation. Like your whiteboard, this advice can be used in many aspects of life.

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