A few years ago back, I enjoyed a long dinner with a couple good friends of mine — whose names must be kept anonymous given the facts that follow. I generally like to name names, but in this case, I will not out them and will omit identifying information (and change a couple key descriptions) to protect the innocent and the guilty.
To get back to our dinner, we were among the first people at the place and the last to leave because we were having so much fun talking about many different topics — why incremental innovation is sometimes under-appreciated and why breakthrough innovations are over glorified, how the best way to influence your spouse is through your kids rather than directly, and why the 130-proof bourbon the bartender gave us to try was a cool idea — especially because the ice cubes sank — although it tasted a bit too much like drinking lighter fluid.
This piece focuses on the topic we kept coming back to: the idea that, well, bad bosses aren’t all bad. We all had suffered through bad bosses, and had seen them do all kinds of damage. BUT during the course of the conversation, we started realizing that a bad boss (especially the kind who doesn’t really have the power to hurt you very much) can be a great thing in some ways.
The notion that you can learn a lot about what NOT to do from a bad boss has been around for decades. A charming version of this argument is in Robert Townsend’s classic Up The Organization, where he asserts that much of what he learned about being a good boss came from working for awful bosses at American Express early in his career.
The focus of our conversation about bad bosses, however, turned a different direction. One of my friends had just ended a long stint working for a lousy boss, one who could be a selfish a**hole at times and was a legendary backstabber and narcissist. He talked about how great it was that this selfish jerk had been removed from his management job and was now working a line job again, and how his new boss was thus far amazing — selfless, open, always thinking about was good for his group rather than himself, listening all the time, practicing constant empathy. This guy could be the poster child for my book Good Boss, Bad Boss.
My other friend chimed in and talked about how he wished he had a boss like that. His boss was inept in many ways, especially committing sins of omission: not going to meetings she should, not answering emails no matter how important, not following through on commitments, not jumping into help his team when she said she would, not having the guts to deal with performance problems, not reaching outside of the organization to develop a stronger network, and perhaps worst of all, constantly spending time planning and talking and brainstorming — but pretty much being unable or unwilling to actually get anything done. This boss could be the poster child for The Knowing-Doing Gap.
Then, however, the conversation took an interesting turn that still gnaws at my mind. The guy with the good boss said to the one with the bad boss: “Be careful what you wish for, I got the great boss I want, and it has disadvantages.”
He went on to explain that, when he had that inept boss, he felt obligated to take only minimal steps to help his organization. He did everything he could to avoid contact with his boss — and would never lift a finger to help that a**hole succeed. He wasn’t the only one in his group who reacted that way: Alienation was high and the commitment was low throughout. But he didn’t just mess around at work. He devoted his energy to developing a big book of business and for developing a great reputation among clients. In other words, and this is the key point, he was treated sufficiently badly by his boss (as were others), that he felt free to act largely in his self-interest.
BUT with this new and nearly model boss, he and many of his colleagues are spending much more time working to help the organization in all sorts of ways — to recruit new people, to repair broken procedures, to attend every group meeting, to develop business that helps the organization and not necessarily themselves. As a result, he is spending far less time doing things that benefited only him, and as a result, not only is making a bit less money, he is having less fun too. He now feels compelled to do things that he doesn’t like to benefit his group and organization — because he respects and admires his boss so much, and didn’t want to let him down.
Then, we started quizzing my friend who still had the bad boss. Our friend has become a total star in recent years. The work his team does is bringing in a third of the group’s revenue, he has freedom to do what he wants, his boss is rather afraid of him so almost never tells what to do, he is making a lot of money, and — while he is still doing many things to help his group succeed — he is far more respected both inside and outside the organization than his boss.
As my friend with the new good boss warned him, if you got your dream boss — or worse yet they gave you your bosses job — you might feel great in some ways. But your life would change for the worse in other ways. You would start doing more things that benefited your organization that were not in your pure self-interest, you would spend more time doing things to help others that you would rather not do, you would go to more meetings with people who are of no interest to you — and even dislike — because doing so was for the greater good.
The conversation went back and forth in this vein for a while. Although all three of us still believe that bad bosses suck on the whole, we started wondering if a more general, elaborate, and evidence-based argument might be made about the upsides of working for a loser. Some of the virtues of working for bad boss we thought of include:
- You can learn what NOT to do.
- If you just have ordinary competence, you look like a genius compared to your boss.
- You don’t feel compelled to waste time doing extra things that help your group and organization. After all, if they aren’t doing much for you or are treating you badly (via your boss), why should you do anything to help them?
- Your boss might be so inept at implementation that it isn’t worthwhile going to meetings, generating ideas, or suggesting now paths the organization might take. None of it will happen in anyway, so why waste your time?
- A lousy boss probably needs you more than a good boss — and thus you may have power — because you keep bailing him or her out, bringing in money or clients that he or she is too inept to do, and performing other competent acts that protect the boss and make the boss look better than he or she really deserves.
- If the boss leaves (perhaps is fired — but in too many organizations lousy bosses get promoted), and you get the job, people will think you are brilliant because of the power of psychological contrast.
I am partly having fun here and partly serious. Yet as we talked about the good and bad bosses my friends had, and other bosses we had known and worked for, we realized that there are some under-appreciated virtues to having a bad boss.
Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.
This article first appeared on LinkedIn.