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Leading a workplace is hard work, and many bosses get a bad rap. It may seem like the person in the coveted corner office who waltzes in and out whenever she pleases has it made compared to the rank and file members of the office, but that’s not always the case.
Many times, your manager has a many more stressors and responsibilities than employees realize.
When you’re the boss, you are always working to strike the right balance between being authoritative and being permissive. Swing too far in either direction, and you’re either a boss from hell or a doormat—and finding that happy middle ground can be a challenge.
Those in charge are also held responsible for the successes and failures of the entire team, so it makes sense that they might seem a little on edge from time to time.
I’ve been fortunate to have had some incredible bosses in my career. From my earliest legal internship to my first (and only) job after law school, I’ve had good bosses who have also been true mentors.
However, working as an employment discrimination attorney has also made me aware of the plethora of not-so-great bosses out there. Being a bad manager in itself isn’t illegal, but hearing about truly bad bosses comes with the territory when you vet and represent employees in workplace matters.
So, how do you know if you have a truly horrible boss or if you just need an attitude change? There are a few ways to distinguish between the two. Here are the ways you can tell.
This sounds obvious enough, but a bad boss does not respect his or her employees. How will you know if your boss doesn’t respect you and the people who work with you? There are a few different ways to tell, including:
Though not an exhaustive list, if your boss engages in some or all of these behaviors, it is more than likely that she is a truly bad boss. Of course, some of these examples may be somewhat subjective.
For example, sometimes when we receive constructive criticism, we have a habit of focusing solely on the negative things that were said and ignoring the rest. In that instance, it may be more an issue of your attitude than your boss’s (more on this below). But, if upon an honest review of the situation you find a pattern of disrespect and abuse, it is likely a sign you truly have a bad boss.
If your boss acts like every employee is a potential suspect of a crime rather than a valued member of a team, it may be a sign you have a horrible boss.
As responsible adults, we all deserve to be treated as such. Sure, it’s a boss’s job to maintain order and ensure that company policies are followed, but if their modus operandi involves treating you like a child found with their hand in the cookie jar at every opportunity, then they may be the problem.
Anyone who thrives off embarrassing, humiliating, and dressing down others can’t establish healthy employee relationships and shouldn’t be leading a professional environment.
A boss who engages in unlawful employment discrimination and harassment is a clear problem.
You are not to blame for their biases and destructive behavior. If your boss treats you disparately because of your race, sex, disability, or other protected status, the problem lies with them—not you.
Further, if your boss engages in sexual harassment or assault, this is again a clear sign that they are a truly abusive boss.
Such conduct should be reported up your company’s chain of command, and, depending on the type of behavior at issue, should be reported to the proper outside authorities when necessary as well.
Another sign you have a bad boss is if they don’t manage their job duties effectively. This is another area that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It may be that you think your boss is slacking off when they simply have a different work style or leadership style than you.
However, if projects are falling through, clients are angry, and your workplace is constantly in chaos because your boss can’t seem to get his act together—and worse, he doesn’t seem to care—then it may be a sign your boss is the problem.
Further, if your boss refuses to accept responsibility for these issues and regularly tries to pass the blame to lower-ranking employees, then it’s even clearer: you have a bad boss.
These are some of the main signs you have a toxic boss, but as we discussed previously, sometimes your boss isn’t to blame for you feelings of discord. So, how do you know when you’re the problem?
We don’t always like to admit we’re the problem, but the reality is that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We get in our way. We don’t like being told what to do. We feel we do so much and truly resent when someone asks us to do more or to do things differently.
But those aren’t the only signs we may be the root of our workplace problems. Here are some of the other signs you may need an attitude adjustment.
Employees shouldn’t be required to navigate toxic workplaces, and employers should do their best to create healthy, inviting workplaces for their workers.
Because of the work I do advocating for employees, I probably have a more utopian view than many of what constitutes the ideal workplace. However, even I understand that a day at work is not supposed to be a day at the beach (unless you actually work at the beach; then more power to you).
As working professionals, we are paid to bring value to our employers, and there are certain standards by which we must operate.
But sometimes we have unrealistic expectations. Depending on your line of work, a little workplace stress is to be expected. Keeping up with deadlines, satisfying customers, and maintaining healthy relationships with colleagues isn’t always easy—but that’s why it’s called “work” and not “super relaxing fun time.”
To that end, if you find yourself butting heads with your boss because you believe they expect too much of you, then you may need to assess why you feel this way.
Being asked to perform duties well outside your job description is one thing, but being asked to do a little more every now and again is to be expected. The workload ebbs and flows based on many factors, and sometimes we need to work a little harder.
If your boss is receptive to your concerns, then consider yourself fortunate. It may be that you simply have a stressful line of work—and that’s not your boss’s fault.
If you have a tenuous relationship with your current boss, take a moment and think back to the relationships you’ve had with other superiors.
Have you always had trouble accepting direction? Have you often felt underappreciated or that you haven’t received the credit you were due?
Have you found yourself quietly (or not-so-quietly) berating your higher-ups or treating them with hostility? Have you always thought you could do a better job than them?
It is possible that every single boss you’ve ever had has been a bad boss, but there’s also a very real possibility that you might be the problem.
It can be difficult to accept guidance and direction—no one likes being told what to do. But, just as you have a job to do, your boss has a job to do as well, and part of that job involves guiding and evaluating all employees—including you.
Be honest: do you enjoy receiving constructive criticism? Some of us do, but many of us do not.
Whether you love it or hate it, you’re going to receive it at work. Now, if you have a good boss, she will deliver her advice with tact. Hopefully, she will also round out the conversation with a discussion of what you do well.
But if you have a hard time receiving constructive criticism, you won’t appreciate even the most diplomatic delivery of this information. The worst thing you can do when receiving constructive criticism is to take only the criticism to heart.
Hating your boss because it’s her job to deliver this information is also a problem.
Performance reviews, project assessments, and other methods of evaluation are a normal, necessary part of work life. Nobody is perfect, and many times, even the most detail-oriented and thorough employee has a professional area upon which they could improve.
Don’t take it personally. Again, it’s not personal—it’s business.
If you believe you may be in need of an attitude adjustment, take a step back and decide what your approach will be going forward.
It’s not always easy to admit when we are wrong, but it’s a necessary part of growing and advancing as an adult and professional.
You should never tolerate an abusive boss or work environment. If you believe your boss or work environment is the problem, seek help at work or through an outside legal or alternative dispute resolution process.
But, outside of that, if you have a feeling that you are the problem, you should remember that our workplaces are places of business and professionalism—and sometimes you’ll need to check your ego and/or unrealistic expectations at the door.
Candace is a practicing attorney, working parents advocate, freelance writer, and proud mom. Her legal practice focuses on workers’ rights. She can be found writing about law, motherhood, and more on her blog as The Mom at Law.