Bosses from Hades: Where do they come from?


By now, you know them by sight. Hardly anyone who has ever worked for pay has not had to suffer at least one.

They hover until you want to scream. They scream until you want to disappear. They harp and carp, demand and demoralize, patronize and insult. Sometimes, they even lie to make themselves look good.

They come in many shades of red, but they're still the bosses from Hades.

These people sap your motivation because nothing you do suits them. They are doggedly and unfailingly right.

They dampen any joy or creativity you might bring to your job because you're afraid -- of their capricious ways, of doing something wrong. So you shrink from the very idea of innovation.

Bad bosses rob you of your optimum productivity because they pulverize your morale. Worst of all, they feed off weak, malleable people, then proudly insist that the Pablum tastes great.

We all know who bad bosses are, how they behave and how we feel about them. But where do they come from?

Some experts say bad bosses may start out as children who whine or malinger to get their way. They won't share toys. While one will be willful and self-centered, another will be frightened and domineering.

"These people grow up to be selfish, stubborn and manipulative," said Judith Segal, a Los Angeles-based management consultant. "They're people users. The reason subordinates detest them as bosses is that they make you feel taken advantage of, set up, powerless and off-balance."

Bad bosses also can spawn other bad bosses. In this case, the idea is: "I suffered for 10 years under Joe. Now I've the power to make everyone else similarly miserable."

And poorly managed companies consistently pick managers for all the wrong reasons, Ms. Segal said. Afterward, those executives, just like bad parents, relinquish their responsibility and rarely monitor lower managers -- except about money and product concerns.

If a sales director routinely savages his staff, so what? If the leasing manager lies, blaming subordinates for her mistakes, why worry?

"Companies license people to do whatever they have to to bring in clients," Ms. Segal said. "And managing people well is usually the last reason someone is made a supervisor."

Consultant Michael Mescon agreed that many companies promote for the wrong reasons. Susceptible to eager, charming people who present themselves well in meetings, corporations tend to glance only superficially at character and managerial aptitude.

"To a great extent, bad bosses are symptomatic of an organization's perverse systems that reward these behaviors," said Mr. Mescon, president of the Mescon consulting group and former dean of Georgia State University's business school.

"Say you have a bad boss, a real [unpleasant person] anyway you look at him or her. Now, how does an individual like this not only survive in organizations, but also be rewarded with both raises and promotions?"

It's because the corporate culture tacitly supports treating people like chattel, as long as the profits look good, Mr. Mescon said.

"Companies with a tradition of adversarial relationships -- among people and departments -- will have contentious bosses, too. There, you'll have people and divisions trying to build prestige upon the ruins of each other's failures."

However absurdly destructive that sounds, Mr. Mescon said, if it's part of the "organizational folkway" and if top management hasn't the will to look into the heart of the operation, then there will always be bosses from hell.

But American free enterprise is reaching the point, he said, "where we'll either get well together or perish together. Because, as a rule, the problem is not just one rotten apple. There's a culture there."

If that's a culture of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, it incubates poor managers, experts said. At the same time, they noted that some American companies are being forced to change their ways.

"Why?" Mr. Mescon asked rhetorically. "Because people view work differently now, and they should. Work should be as natural as eating and breathing. We ought to develop an intrinsic satisfaction from it."

As employees, especially members of two-earner families, become more accustomed to the idea that work need not be a 40-year misery, they may become less timid about protesting bad management.

"Generally, the more secure the subordinate, the less likely he or she will take the abuse," Mr. Mescon said. "And the more secure the boss, the less likely he or she is to be abusive."

In the future, he predicted, fewer workers will allow themselves to be pummeled emotionally. And confident, secure supervisors won't feel the need to assert their power in destructive ways.

"I think the 'age of terrorism' is going," he said.

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