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Bosses We Love, Wish Were Better, or Outright Despise

You have more control over the "boss-subordinate" relationship than you think.

Think about the worst boss you ever had. Or the best one. Or those who fell somewhere in between just OK and aimless. And moving from their report cards to yours, how good were you at finding productive ways of working with—or at least adjusting to—these bosses?

Some years ago I got interested in whether or not the business executives with whom I'd worked represented any particular patterns of behavior. So I piled the files of 300 executive coaching cases on a conference table and spent a few months sifting through their life histories, the results of various psychological tests, and the data I'd gathered from people who worked for or with them.

I identified three patterns of behavior and named these leader types: Remarkable, Perilous, and Toxic. A few years later, these types were shown to be empirically distinct on two well-established psychological measures. Further, I conceptualized them on a continuum of leadership behavior—because, in my experience, business executives are not locked into a particular leader type. Rather, their behavior varies depending on the confluence of work and personal factors.

Then I thought, So what? That's when it started to get interesting—in the sense that I realized psychological insights about boss behavior could be useful to the people who reported to them. Specifically, this information could help them recognize what type of boss they had—and how their boss might move along the remarkable, perilous, and toxic behavior continuum. And more importantly, this recognition of leader type could inform how employees might better relate to—and yes, manage—their bosses more effectively.

In other words, armed with psychological insights about why bosses behaved the way they did could flip the hierarchical boss-subordinate power dynamic into something more open, more real, more mutually satisfying—and maybe even more productive.

Those with Remarkable bosses could soar. Those with Perilous bosses could stop personalizing their bosses' relentless criticism and dissatisfaction. Those with Toxic bosses could acquire coping strategies and/or figure out a way out of their miserable reporting relationships.


Here are some criteria you can use to assess your boss's type:


Does my boss make decisions that are based on both left brain objective facts and data as well as right brain subjective feelings and awareness of people issue?

Does my boss prefer team-based decision-making versus imposing what he/she has decided on his/her own?


Is my boss aware of his/her feelings and does he/she use this emotional awareness to ensure attunement to what's really going on for the people who report to him/her?

Can my boss control his/her emotions—especially negative ones like anger, frustration, and disappointment—in ways that do not demoralize the team?


Is my boss confident in his/her abilities and does he/she use them to help develop me, as well as to accelerate business results?

Is my boss's behavior primarily in the service of the organization versus getting his/her own needs met?

NOTE: Remarkable bosses will get a "yes" answer in response to all of the questions above. The Perilous boss will get "mixed" reviews. And Toxic bosses will get a "no" answer on most, if not all of these questions. For a fuller assessment of boss type, see my Leadership Type Exercise in BEHIND THE EXECUTIVE DOOR.


If you are fortunate enough to be working for a Remarkable boss, here are some clues for getting more mileage out of that relationship:

Building a reciprocal relationship with the boss—replace the question of "What's in it for me?" with "What's in it for us?" This will find you adding to the boss's strategic thinking, finding ways to ensure strategic alignment throughout the organization, finding ways to accelerate results, and ensuring a leadership team that's populated by "A" players.

Being a truth teller—say what you see especially in terms of your boss's (1) communication effectiveness in both small and large group settings, (2) consistency (your helping ensure that his/her mouth and feet match), and (3) courage to make the hard decisions.

If you are frustrated with the day-to-day reality of working for a Perilous boss, here are some clues for easing that situation:

Strive to reduce their chronic disappointments (nothing-is-ever-quite-good-enough—(1) overtly acknowledge their talents, (2) highlight their accomplishments, and (3) convey positive comments about their performance—especially feedback from executives senior to them.

Help them connect head and heart—coach them away from behavior that is overly content-based and toward a blend of objective (data) and subjective (people) factors. For example, remind them to acknowledge the role specific people played in major accomplishments.

If you are stuck in the disempowering, demotivating, and stress-inducing experience of working for aToxic boss, the major clue is to stay focused on surviving it:

Decide if you need to STAY or if you can GO.

If for personal and/or financial reasons you must stay, then the primary survival clue is peerage. The key elements of peerage are (1) frequent communication with your peers about the realities of the situation, (2) maintaining unity among yourselves lest the Toxic boss run a successful divide-and-conquer script, (3) bonding in joint problem-solving to stave off the boss's worst decisions on business and staff-related issues, and (4) maintaining your own internal locus of control, i.e. clarity about your strengths, skills and accomplishments—as an antidote to unfair or otherwise misguided attacks from the Toxic boss.

If you can, in fact, leave your Toxic boss situation, there are a number of key elements in doing this well. I call these the "4Es;" (1) envisioning what you want to do next, (2) engaging with others who are already doing this as a litmus test of the viability of this direction for you, (3) enduring the inevitable see-saw of emotions as you pursue your next life chapter, and (4) embarking fully— creating and executing a fleshed-out plan for your great escape.

So, yes: Power to the people—more power to the people whatever type boss they may have. But remember: Insight is cheap unless you use it.

More from Karol Wasylyshyn Psy.D.
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