why I’m thankful for the bad managers in my past

I’ve worked with and for a lot of bad managers in my career. I consider them anti-mentors: bosses who were so bad that they unwittingly formed the start of my thinking on management, by providing a perfect model of what not to do.

Over at Inc. today, I talk about those bad bosses and why I’m grateful to them. (Note: My columns for Inc. are generally pulled from my archives here. This one was originally printed here in 2008.)

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{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Weekday Warrior*

    I think we do learn what not to do from bad bosses, but weirdly, we can also pick up bad approaches by habit or osmosis. Kind of like how we learn to be parents, good and bad, by the example of our own parents. We can catch ourselves doing or saying things we swore not to do. Luckily, we usually get a few boss examples to mix up the bad and good, unlike the one set of parents, but bad imprinting can still be a thing. I once had a very, very cheap boss and I can still catch myself thinking that people asking for legit expenses are acting “entitled”. Aargh.

    1. Rat Racer*

      I think that parenting example is very insightful. The worst boss I ever had was emotionally cruel and manipulative. On the one hand, her anti-example has inspired me to be compassionate, transparent, to give credit and accept responsibility managing my own small team. On the other hand though, the scars that I carry from working for her still negatively impact my own work practices – like second-guessing my own decisions and hedging every opinion I offer. It’s also possible to swing too far in the opposite direction and be overly forgiving and too transparent. One place I draw the line though: never will I ever criticize someone’s character — especially in the guise of “Everyone in the office is saying that you are X, Y, Z.” Damn that boss sucked.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I totally agree with this. I thought I knew all about what good management was…until I left that company. I won’t say that everything I learned there was wrong, but that there are a few things that were imprinted that maybe weren’t really right. Know what I mean?

      And I feel the same way about expenses. To this day I still have a very hard time not doing everything I possibly can to save a buck. I find it difficult to determine when I should spend the money and when I need to find another way to do something that’s less expensive.

      1. LQ*

        Expenses, yikes. I struggle to not spend my own money. After about 2 years of being really frustrated with a slow computer (I have the same machine as everyone else despite working with much more intensive software and having a host of requirements no one else here has) I asked my boss. He was like, of course we can get something better, why didn’t you ask sooner. Then he asked me to spec it out and said, don’t spend your own money, we need to get you something good.
        (Last time he had me spec something out I went for the what is the barebones cheapest way to do this, when the project got passed to the next step the price went up nearly 70x -which it did need to ultimately. )

    3. Bend & Snap*

      Definitely. I worked for a bad boss once and was disciplined for picking up her habits.

      Oddly, I don’t think they ever addressed the boss’s habits, just slapped the hands of the people who worked for her.

  2. voyager1*

    I get this was more of a humor article, however where I have worked at in my career, outside of the military. Two of the things done in this post would have landed me in hot water/maybe fired. The complaining about a manager and creating an email inbox/work box for work. That second story definitely would be a serious problem.

    I get where this article is coming from, I did laugh though.

    1. NJ Anon*

      No humor! This is so true. Everying I learned was from doing the opposite of what my bad bosses did. Not that all were all bad or all good. But some were terrible and I still to this day say they taught me how not to be a manager!

      1. Jenn Sadai*

        Great article Alison!! I wrote a book about the bad bosses I’ve experienced, how they affected my career and the lessons I learned along the way. Although Dirty Secrets of the World’s Worst Employee is pegged as being a funny book, the stories are all true and contain quite serious offenses. Sexual harassment, bullying, and unjust dismissals are all common in today’s workplace. I appreciate that “Ask a Manger” sees the bigger picture and is addressing it on this wonderful site!

    2. Sarahnova*

      Yeah, this isn’t humour and nor did Alison necessarily present those as good things to do – just what she did at the time. It’s very context dependent.

  3. pinkfluffyhr*

    This reminds me of a poem I wrote about managers on the spur of the moment.

    Managers at play
    Older children with policies for toys
    Staff structure for jigsaws
    Meetings for games
    What really happens
    In the mind of a manager?

    Appreciation for staff,
    Or stats to be tallied?
    What of volunteers,
    Who never do tarry?
    A game, a test?
    Or just a high-paying nine to five?

    Assistant managers, CEOs, middle management
    Pieces of each others algorithms?
    Or seperate hearts within a soul.
    Oh what a thing to wonder,
    About managers at play.

  4. The Other Dawn*

    I love the picture today!

    Ever since I first read this article, I’ve been meaning to make a list of all the things I hated about past managers. I think I need to do that, as I’ve just been enrolled in a three-year leadership program. I think a list will help me improve as a manager and determine where I fall short.

  5. Just another HR Pro*

    Sadly I have only had the option to learn from bad managers, with the exception of a General Manager I had when working at a restaurant of all places. But in my career in the “real world”, I have only myself had bad managers, although I have worked with great managers. Honestly, though, I have learned so much from them – its like a how to manual of what NOT to do….

  6. Artemesia*

    This is a great article. If I were still teaching I’d use it. I believe virtually all business problems are management failures and the biggest one is the unwillingness to manage. I used to ask students in an undergrad class on training I was teaching to describe an on the job disaster or failure they had participated in or observed. Most of the students had worked in the summer or been interns and they all could come up with situations. We then explored whether this was a training problem or a management problem. Almost always it was either abusive managers or managers unwilling to manage. If training was the answer it was management training in most cases. A common example since they were young was being a camp councilor where most people ignored the rules and the manager avoided managing so that one or two people ended up with all the standards enforcement with campers or did all the dirty work. Another common example was sexual harassment that was ignored or didn’t result in consequences.

    Anyone who is afraid to make waves or fears confrontation to the point they cannot hold people accountable is unfit for management. That doesn’t stop such people from being appointed though.

  7. HardwoodFloors*

    Another thing to learn from a bad manager is not to have favorites- the people who always handed the plum assignments and then praised and rewarded heavily for something anyone else could have done. And the converse is the boss who feels they have to micromanage their ‘ problem ‘ employees. I had a boss who would write page long emails twice a week on average saying, “you did this wrong again,” “you aren’t trained properly,” “you don’t understand what I want,” for a six month or year period going on and on about ‘problems’ that had not caused concern to anyone else then one day the nasty emails disappeared and someone else was the target of the long nasty emails. Then that person got nasty emails twice a week for six or twelve months. To try and minimize the psychological damage a co-worker (the targeted one) would say to another co-worker please request this purchase for bosses approval so I can make progress on my project without boss making a big deal about my email/request.

  8. Seal*

    I really like this article and concept. Whenever I mention that I’ve learned things from every manager I’ve ever had, especially the bad ones, people tend to look at me funny. Nice to know others agree that learning how NOT to do something is just as important as learning how to do something right.

  9. Miles*

    This is what people call bad managers? I mean, I get that they’re not doing their jobs but my experiences are more like… well…
    One stole from the safe and got staff in trouble for it by miscounting their tills, and once threatened to fire someone unless she forged another employees signature on pay stub paperwork.
    Another told me I needed to spend more time on facebook and that my job wasn’t that important, several times.
    A third yelled at others in the office when they came to her with work that was my job to do (as my supervisor it had to go through her)… and then yelled at them when I started going around their offices directly asking for any projects, for giving me those projects.

    1. K-Anon*

      Yeah, if these are bad bosses in Alison’s books, some of the ones I’ve had are downright atrocitous.

    2. Cupcake*

      I had one awful manager in retail who would deny our requests for a bathroom break unless we were practically dancing around trying to hold pee in. She also tried to make an employee who broke his arm carry heavy boxes around.

    3. Anon Accountant*

      I’ll add threatened to fire staff who refused to prepare knowingly fraudulent financial reports or engage in unethical behaviors that would’ve resulted in disciplinary action against professional licenses from the state board.

      Allowed 1 employee to create such chaos that almost everyone who quit cited her as a reason. Support that employee because of a past relationship with the employee. The manager and employee had a romantic fling when he was married. She bullied several people into resigning and was awful to anyone she disliked. He didn’t do anything because she always said she would tell his wife about their prior affair.

  10. Tomato Frog*

    My bosses have been fair to middlin’, and yet even though they did many things right, I still find I learned the most from what they did wrong. I guess it’s because those are the things that stop you in your tracks and force you to think about what’s happening. When something’s well done, things flow smoothly and it’s easy to pass over it.

    My current boss has given me a greater appreciation of my past bosses’ good habits, though — so there’s that.

  11. seisy*

    I feel I learned a lot from my previous bad managers (mostly in roles where I was responsible for managing teams of volunteer staff myself), but I can’t really ever feel grateful to them even in a tongue-in-cheek way, because the experience was so unrelentingly awful. Managers playing mean girl games because they didn’t like my supervisor and weren’t happy to just ask her to resign, but wanted to ruin her. Managers who never trusted their reports further than they could throw them, and would disregard everything their reports would tell them about the things they were being paid to know about and manage. Managers who would disregard and dismiss everything you said, but turn around and think it was a grand old idea if you could get the sole male employee (who was also the most junior employee) to float it. (The last one actually left me literally neurotic about being heard). Managers who thought “I’ve seen your calendars, none of you are working 80 hours a week, if you don’t like it, you can go get a job at Taco Bell” was a good way to motivate a team that was working 60 hour weeks and in response to asking her to keep other departments from offloading unimportant projects on them during their biggest crunch time.

    And that’s before we get into the way a legion of their other decisions were best described as deciding to rescue a sinking ship by poking holes in the bottom to let the water out.

    And since that pretty much sums up the entirety of my experience in the non-profit world, it also pretty much explains why I’ve being trying to run as far away from the field as possible. I never, ever, ever want to hear the phrase “it’s all about the mission!” or “mission-driven” again. I’ve become incapable of hearing them as anything but the sort of thing said by people to cover their own incompetence by implying that the real problem is that the core staff just aren’t ~working hard enough~ or ~sacrificing enough~ or ~dedicated enough~.

    I do worry, however, that the experience has taught me a lot about what not to do along those lines, while setting me up to be more vulnerable to the opposite flaws. (e.g. being too forgiving, perhaps)

  12. Alyson*


    “By working with managers who didn’t know how to delegate, I learned how key it is to be hands-on in keeping work moving, including laying out clear expectations about results, checking in on progress, and holding people accountable for their performance”


  13. James*

    So true!

    Why are so many managers inept, horrible or worse?

    I can only think of 1 of my 5 managers who was good at their job.

    The rest have either been ineffectual, bullies or psychopathic.

    It makes you respect and appreciate good managers though.



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