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This is the best thing I learned from my horrible boss

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 3 days ago Nicole Lyn Pesce
MONEYISH
a person posing for the camera: Working for a horrible boss has taught some managers to treat their own workers better. © AJ_Watt/iStock Working for a horrible boss has taught some managers to treat their own workers better.

In a twisted way, bad bosses might make the best mentors.

That’s what Timothy Wiedman learned while working at a restaurant chain in the 70s. His general manager, who had been a Marine drill sergeant, was “a stickler for enforcing rules.” But Weidman, now 67, told Moneyish that this manager also enforced his own “personal” rules that weren’t written down, and he would fire workers at a moment’s notice -- like when one looked at the manager’s wife’s legs when she came to work in a miniskirt one day. The manager’s wife also wasn’t legally supposed to be working there; he put himself above the rules.

“We all lived under a reign of terror for months as employee turnover climbed toward 200%,” Wiedman said. When he eventually managed his own restaurant, he posted a list of written rules that applied to everyone, including the managers. He also didn’t wield pink slips as the primary means of discipline. “I learned a lot about bad management during his tenure; and I think that those lessons helped me become a much better boss,” he said.

Tami, who wished to withhold her last name, also worked for a bad boss early in her public relations career. When Tami’s grandfather died, the then twenty-something tried setting meetings to discuss what she was working on, so that she could hand things off to be with her family — but her boss blew her off. “When my family went to scatter his ashes the same weekend there was a health fair, she made me work the event, even though I had it fully staffed — and then she took the weekend off,” said Tami, 53, from Las Vegas.

a group of people posing for a photo: Working for a horrible boss has taught some managers to treat their own workers better. © PeopleImages/iStock Working for a horrible boss has taught some managers to treat their own workers better.

But now Tami runs her own PR firm. “Probably the most important thing that having a boss like this taught me was to always listen, and to be compassionate and flexible with schedules,” she said.

And Wynn Newingham, head of innovation and economic growth at the City Manager’s Office in Palm Coast, Fl., has also become a better team player after working for a manager who took credit for others’ ideas and who played “weird power trip games” by talking about employees behind their backs. “I learned a lot of good things I could do moving forward, and things I vowed I’d never do because of her,” Newingham, 29, told Moneyish. “I lead a team now of about 12 people, and consciously point out ‘team efforts,’ not what ‘I’ did. Less of me, more of them.”

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In fact, new research suggests that having a bad boss could turn you into a great one. The University of Central Florida conducted multiple experiments with 1,250 working adults over several years to study the differences in behavior between supervisors who were once abused by their bosses, and those who had not, to see how each group treated their own employees. And the researchers found that the managers who had bad bosses were more likely to treat their own subordinates better. The “abused supervisors” (as the UCF paper identified them) who relied on their morals and their integrity to stand up to their managers’ abusive approach purposely distanced themselves from the way that boss did business, and made it a point to show respect and kindness toward their own workers.

“One thing I learned quickly is to never ask anything of your employees you wouldn’t ask of yourself. Past bosses of mine have demanded I work late without additional pay to meet an unrealistic deadline,” Bret Bonnet, co-founder and president of Quality Logo Products, Inc. in Chicago, told Moneyish. “My advice is to not ask someone to work late or burn the midnight oil on a project unless you’re willing to do the same yourself. Even if you can’t contribute to the task at hand, just being there to support your team will increase morale and buy-in. It doesn’t have to be complicated either! You can support your employees by making sure they’re fed or hydrated.”

Now, abusive leader behaviors can still trickle down to lower-level leaders. A Harvard Business Review report from earlier this year found that bad behavior is more contagious in the office than good behavior; more than one in three (37%) of the employees studied were more likely to do something wrong they worked with someone with a history of bad behavior. So if one person comes in late without getting in trouble, soon everyone starts coming in late.

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But the new UCF research shows that one way some abused supervisors learn to take a stand against their toxic manager is to reject the same toxic leadership style. “Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” wrote UCF College of Business professor Robert Folger. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior, and actually makes them better leaders.”

Unfortunately, despite the $15 billion companies are spending annually for leadership development, more than half of American workers say their boss is mildly or highly toxic, accord to a study by Life Meets Work. And the American Psychological Association found that 75% of Americans say their “boss is the most stressful part of their workday, while Gallup recently reported that one in two employees have left a job “to get away from their manager at some point in their career.”

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“With bosses, we don’t often get to choose who they are and how they are, but we do have a choice in how we react to tough situations,” Ariel Schur, CEO of ABS Staffing Solutions, told Moneyish. She spent nine years working with a toxic boss whose management style was screaming at everyone. “I learned to stop taking it personally; this wasn’t about me, it was about him. He’s like this with everybody. And once I was able to separate that … I decided that I’m not going to let it negatively impact me and my ability to make money,” she said. She also recharged herself with self-care, like exercising for a half hour at lunch, or going out for drinks with colleagues after work to decompress.

“And he helped me develop a stronger character, and definitely sharpened my own management skills, and prepared me to take on the management role I have now,” Schur added. “I have a very open-door policy where I want feedback from my employees. Once a week I sit down with my employees individually to just check in and say, ‘How are things going? What do you need from me? What do you need from the office? What can we improve?’ And I also have weekly staff meetings to make sure we’re all working as cohesively as possible.”

What doesn’t kill us (or our careers) makes us stronger -- like when Froswa’ Booker-Drew’s former boss read Booker-Drew’s duties out loud during a staffing meeting one day before assigning them one by one to her admin, instead. “ My boss never told me why, and stopped speaking to me. The staff privately reassured me it had nothing to do with me, but more to do with her ego. I was devastated,” Booker-Drew told Moneyish. “I resigned to start my own business, and this experience taught me several leadership lessons: Communication is essential. And I should encourage excellence (in my employees). It doesn’t diminish my value; it adds to it.”

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