My name is Lisa, and I was once a bad boss. Not the ex-Governor General, former astronaut Julie Payette kind with a yelling and demeaning nature (allegedly). But I was 26, in over my head, and scrambling to keep anyone from figuring that out. (The kicker is, they probably knew!)
But here’s the difference. I knew I needed help so I went to seminars and took classes and really tried to improve. And my type of “bad” was a far cry from belittling and humiliating my staff.
I’m betting each one of us can think of a boss who just kept on keeping on with their ineffective or toxic ways without a thought to changing their behavior.
I can think of several I’ve had and heard about over the years.
My late friend Betty comes to mind. She was bullied and mistreated by her boss, in the giftware industry, for years. Imagine getting screamed at over a crystal angel or floral candle holder. She tried to tolerate this tyrant long enough to reach pension age but she simple couldn’t take it and one day, she quit in a huff. Her colleagues gave her a silent high five, even as they stayed on, forced to endure this man’s unpredictable temper and volatility.
I had a boss at a freelance job who had no clue what he was doing. There was a layer of personnel between me and him, so his ravings were filtered by the time they reached me. Good for me, but not for my supervisor. He hired an old friend to direct us and this guy had no experience in our industry, but loads of opinions. He doubled our work for no reason and changed his mind about procedures every week. With our pleas for rational thought falling on deaf ears, several of us resigned on the same day. A couple of months later, the old friend was sacked and the department restructured. But it was too late.
One of my ex-husband’s radio bosses was a real gem. One day, the staff held a little birthday party for a beloved colleague. As they were all taking their first bite of cake, this loose cannon began screaming at everyone about something minor that had occurred days before. A ten-minute break turned into an emotional scene that ended with the birthday girl in tears.
The problem with a screaming boss is the powerlessness you feel as an employee. (In addition to the dread you feel each day about going to work.) In my experience, bosses don’t behave this way unless they feel untouchable. A conspiracy of silence develops and the behavior continues, unabated.
Every once in a while, especially in a one-off occasion, the problem is one of perception.
Although I wasn’t his boss, a producer at a radio station did burst into tears after an interaction with me that was completely misinterpreted. Looking back on it, I can see exactly what happened and I find it comical. The problem was, he didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him.
He came to get me because I was filling in (for free, in Toronto, while already doing a busy, challenging job) doing traffic reports for the station he worked at down the hall. I wasn’t familiar with the schedule and I was about to miss a report. I didn’t know he was hanging on by a thread because of the stress of his job. He didn’t know that I defaulted to humour in times of stress. It went like this.
HIM: Hey, you’re up in 3 minutes.
ME: (comically, like a cartoon character, with a huge smile) I cannot work under these conditions!
HIM: (Burst into tears and ran into the studio)
This was followed by a “you’ll never work in this town again” tongue-lashing from the show host who refused to hear my explanation. It’s for the best, I thought. It was a big ask and no one seemed to even care that I was helping out. I never crossed paths with the kid again and let it go. I knew what had happened and that I meant no harm.
But somewhere there’s a thirty-something radio producer – or ex-radio producer – who tells a story of how mean and terrible I am.