If you spend any time on the internet looking at work-related topics and forums, you’ll find a bunch of people who hate the boss.
Boss-bashing is something that many employees traditionally like to do.
Working for “the man” and being told what to do has built up a degree of resentment for leaders over the years.
In this post, I thought I’d take a look at the common reasons for hating the boss, and what we can do differently.
How Leadership Has Changed Over Time
Many years ago, “command and control” was the leadership flavour of the day.
Factory workers and coal miners never had a great deal of input into their working conditions. It was “do what I say or we’ll find someone else to do it”.
The rich people at the top told the managers what to do, and then the managers told the frontline workers what to do.
People don’t like being told what to do, but early on, there was little choice.
Now times have changed. There are many choices of professions, in a huge number of industries.
In the early 1800s, unions started to be formed to put the spotlight on worker’s rights and to try to make sure people were being treated fairly.
Now some people can work remotely, because a lot of work is now “knowledge work” and can be done from almost anywhere.
We now have greater visibility of what different companies are doing. We have more choices as to where we’d like to work.
All of these factors (along with progress on improving human rights) means that in general, we now tend to treat people more fairly and respectfully than ever before.
However, I believe the lingering spectre of command and control leadership remains, and has left an overall negative impression of leaders amongst many people.
Why People Hate the Boss (and What You Can Do About It)
Many people hate the boss. But you can be a leader who helps to sway opinions in a more positive direction.
Now, I’ll take a look at some of the common reasons for these negative opinions and what to do about it.
1. The Boss Is Out of Touch
It’s common knowledge that micromanagement is a bad thing.
So we don’t want to be all up in our team members’ business. We want to give them freedom to operate and do their jobs without watching over their shoulders.
However, if we go too far and become a “hands off” boss, people may perceive us as being out of touch or not wanting to get our hands dirty.
There is a tension here for many leaders. We want to provide autonomy (which is big for motivation), but we don’t want to lose touch.
People tend to hate the boss when they don’t understand the work of the team, or aren’t aware of what’s happening.
To avoid this problem, you might try spending some time with the team while they work, so you can observe the struggles and positive aspects. You’ll also want to set up regular time with each individual, to hear what they have to say.
You might also pay attention to trying to “keep your hand in”. That is, you need to keep up to date with industry trends and try to bring them into your team.
You might even keep a little of the “doing” work to yourself, so you maintain some of your relevant skills.
This last point can seem a little counter-intuitive. We often tell leaders they need to delegate more, so why would they keep doing the work?
Well, because in my view, this can help us to maintain some credibility because we still use some of the skills that our team respects. Of course, the higher you go in the organisation, the less you will be able to use this particular strategy.
I think a good rule of thumb is to be close enough to the work to know what’s going on. But not so close that you are often getting involved in all the details.
2. People Hate the Boss Because They Make Pointless Changes
If you’ve ever taken over a new team, you’ll know the feeling.
You can’t just come in and do everything the same way, can you? Otherwise, you’re not making an impact. You’re not putting your stamp on the team.
Some leaders feel the best way to show their value is to make sweeping changes to show that they’re doing things.
I find it’s helpful to resist this feeling to some degree.
Yes, you want to make a positive impact. You want to improve the team.
But we don’t need to do this by criticising or scrapping what has come before. We want to build on that, and make it better.
I find it helpful to acknowledge the contributions of previous leaders or team members in a team. Because remember, when you criticise the way a team works, you’re indirectly criticising the people who were part of the team before you started.
Point out the positive things that you see the team doing. Keep them.
Then, get input from the team to understand the pain points – the things that people are unhappy about. Be sure to understand what the team members think, rather than just basing everything on your previous experience. Then work with the team to fix issues, or make positive improvements.
Some people will say:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
While this has some merit, you should still be trying to make improvements. People learn and grow when a team improves, and one of the important parts of leadership is helping your people to get better.
Instead of making sweeping changes, aim for incremental improvements. Build on good things and make them better, where you and the team believe they will add the most value.
Leave some things the same, especially if improving them won’t lead to a major payoff.
What you’re after here is “bang for your buck”.
Learn More: Team Improvement: 5 Reasons Smart Leaders Love It.
3. Trying to Be “The Boss”
In my opinion, the hardest part of leadership is managing yourself. Your own fears, insecurities and emotions.
These are the things that will trip you up if you’re not careful.
When I see a leader come in and try to impose their authority on a team, I see a leader who is insecure and fearful of losing control.
So what I suggest is doing the opposite.
You feel like you need to bark orders and tell people what to do. So ask them for their opinion instead.
You feel like you need to make all the decisions. Ask people what they think is a good idea, and use their input to help you.
When people behave or perform badly, it’s natural to feel frustrated and sometimes, you want to yell at someone. How about sitting down with them and calmly asking them what’s going on instead?
Our instincts have been hardwired over many thousands of years. But those instincts don’t really help us in many work situations.
Try going against yourself and see what happens.
4. People Hate the Boss When They Don’t Communicate
There is an old saying about employees being like mushrooms. Because they are kept in the dark and fed bullsh*t.
In other words, leaders don’t tell them what’s going on.
Some leaders believe that certain information is “above the paygrade” of many employees. They think that information should be provided on a “need to know” basis.
Being involved in the team and the workplace helps to provide team members with a sense of purpose. So when we shut down communication, we make them feel like they don’t matter.
Open and honest communication is important. In fact, Kouzes and Posner have found that the top leadership quality people look for is honesty.
Create multiple regular communication channels for your people, including team forums and one-to-one.
Be as honest as you can be.
As a leader, you will occasionally have access to information that shouldn’t be shared openly, such as information about pending restructures or confidential employee information.
However, a useful tip I once heard from Neuroscientist and Philosopher Sam Harris was to change our wording to improve our honesty, rather than telling the white lies we often do.
For example, “I can’t tell you that” is not true if you have access to the information. We can tell people anything we know by opening our mouths.
Instead, you could try something like “I don’t feel comfortable telling you that information.”
There is a subtle difference, but the second phrase is honest (assuming you feel uncomfortable), even if it doesn’t involve telling everything you know.
5. Bosses “Don’t Do Anything”
One of the common refrains I hear from disgruntled employees is that managers don’t do anything.
Of course, that’s probably not true.
What they really mean is either they don’t know what the boss is doing, or that what the boss is doing doesn’t seem to be that important.
It’s easy to believe these things because team members are often busy doing the work, while a leader is performing people-management tasks, reporting, or dealing with stakeholders outside of the team. In many cases, employees wouldn’t even really know the impact of what the manager is doing.
It can be useful to communicate to your team members what you are doing, and why it matters.
While you shouldn’t need to justify yourself, raising awareness within the team can improve your credibility and help you to appear as a valuable asset for the team, rather than a management burden.
You might also try delegating some of your tasks to team members, both to help them develop leadership skills, but also so they gain an understanding of what is involved in a leader’s role.
This additional visibility can help team members to appreciate what a leader does, which can go a long way to breaking down entrenched negative beliefs about what leaders do all day.
6. The Boss Is Unpredictable
One of the key ingredients for trust is reliability and consistency.
So if you are calm one day, and yelling the next, people start to get a little anxious.
Or if you say one thing, then change your mind the next week, people don’t know what to expect.
The best way to become more predictable and consistent is to slow down, and give yourself space.
Stressed leaders are scattered, unfocused leaders.
Take breaks, schedule time for important work and focus on your top three priorities, rather than going for five or ten.
There is so much to say on this topic that I’ll refer to some other resources below instead of covering it all here!
Learn More: The Cult of Busyness: How Leaders Can Kill It.
Learn More: How to Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership.
Learn More: Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.
Learn More: Why Leaders Should Have a Reflective Practice.
Your People Don’t Need to Hate the Boss
Bashing the boss has been a favourite past time of employees for many years.
However, it will take work to eliminate the negative stereotypes that leaders have attracted over the years.
We don’t want to add fuel to the fire of critical employees.
Instead, let’s provide them with fewer reasons to hate the boss.
Then, we can hold them accountable more easily, knowing that we’ve done our part. Now they need to do theirs.
What other reasons have you heard for hating the boss? Let me and all the thoughtful leader know in the comments below!