June 28, 2011
Why we need horrible bosses
We've all worked for them. The tyrant who enjoys belittling others in public. The snake who pawns off her work on you and takes credit for it. The workaholic who expects everyone else to give up their personal life just because he doesn't have one. The TMI queen who can't resist sharing the intimate details of her recent visit to the gastroenterologist. The scatterbrain who always remembers that Very Important Thing he needs you to do by Monday morning just as you're leaving the office Friday evening.
Complaining about horrible bosses has become something of a national pastime. Sites like horribleboss.com and truuconfessions.com allow anonymous underlings to share their bad boss horror stories and find comfort, however fleeting, in commiseration. Popular TV bosses like Steve Carell's Michael Scott win the ratings of millions by sending up such buffoonery. Movies like "Nine to Five," "Office Space," and "Horrible Bosses" (opening this weekend) indulge our fantasies of rubbing out our supervisor or burning down the corporate headquarters.
I'm all for venting about horrible bosses in anonymous online forums. Same goes for taking delight in TV and film depictions of their shortcomings and downfalls. But money-making web and entertainment ventures aren't the only ones who need horrible bosses. We workers do, too.
Don't believe me? Think I'm crazy? Look at all the business skills and life lessons bad bosses inadvertently teach us:
Management. In showing us how not to manage projects and people, bad bosses teach us more effective ways to lead -- for example, by treating people with respect and diving into upcoming deadlines well before the eleventh hour.
Communication. People with volatile bosses learn to choose their words and timing carefully. People with scattered bosses who repeatedly change project specifications soon discover they need to ask their boss for all the necessary details at the start of a project and get their sign-off at various checkpoints along the way.
Boundary setting. A boss who constantly pressures us to stay late or answer emails after hours teaches us to stand up for ourselves and embrace the word "no."
Time management. In demonstrating poor planning over and over, disorganized bosses teach those of us actually doing the work how to create realistic schedules and plan ahead.
Negotiation. A boss who's always asking us to chase dead-end business leads or pull off Herculean scheduling feats teaches us the fine art of suggesting a happy medium between their ill-informed desires and ours.
Problem solving. By being indecisive, making unreasonable demands, or refusing to answer our questions about how to proceed on a project, bad bosses force us to think on our feet and come up with creative ways to handle conflicts and otherwise difficult situations.
Diplomacy. People who have to discuss their boss's bad behavior with others (HR, their manager's manager) learn to navigate the choppy seas of office politics and become well-versed in the art of letting others hang themselves.
Past and present disgruntled underlings, what do you think? What valuable professional lessons have you learned from the bad bosses in your life?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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