What bad leaders do to us

I’m consistently amazed at how much crap some people are forced to put up with in the workplace. Earlier this year there was an interesting piece of career advice given to aspiring surgeons, that they should give in to sexual advances from senior colleagues if they wanted to have a successful career.

This really advises taking the path of least resistance – putting up with the horrendous times, of which there are hopefully very few, to enjoy a career which is fulfilling where you aim to save lives. But is this really necessary? Why must someone put up with harassment to pursue a career path which is already very difficult to get into? And the kick in the guts is that people who choose this path probably find it to be rewarding and meaningful, but have to pay the personal price to achieve success.

I don’t want to give the impression that this always happens – I’ve been assured by a friend in the medical industry that while this can happen, it only occurs when the culture of the place tolerates it. Strong leadership within hospital departments apparently reduces the acceptance of this type of behaviour. We’ve all worked for bad leaders – but imagine putting up with sexual harassment because of weak leadership? This is one ramification of leadership that I hadn’t really considered.

This situation is similar to the “boys club” culture that is prevalent in many industries. I happen to live and work in a city that has been recently criticised for having a boys club culture. Well it’s a good thing that I’m male, now I can really get ahead!

Or at least I could, if I got along with the people who reinforce these attitudes and behaviours. Have I seen this in action myself? Yes indeed. I remember several years ago I was working with a director who voiced her opinion on something in an executive meeting and one of the male execs was so impressed that he said “you go girl” in response. It still makes me cringe just thinking about it.

In that same company, there were (and still are) zero women in the top leadership positions. Within middle management, there were approximately 2 out of 25 women while I was there. Is it because it was a male-dominated industry? Maybe, but not really – there were many females working in that office, but they hadn’t made it into the leadership roles.

A bad leader is a bad leader, male or female

But is it only females who have this issue? No way! A bad leader is a bad leader, everywhere you go. People around the world are stepped on by terrible leaders every day. I recently worked on a project with some of the worst displays of leadership that I have ever seen – and everyone was affected. Morale was terrible, nobody felt as if they could succeed…and they didn’t. The project was eventually delayed. Many people (including myself) quit the project in disgust, some with health issues arising from the stress of it all. Some contractors (not all) were making a killing, earning more than $1,300 per day and adding little to no value, but often engineering situations to make sure they didn’t lose their jobs. The worst bit? It was taxpayer money that was being wasted.

What do I believe the root cause to be? Ineffective leadership, at all levels. Even leaders who wanted to make changes had no power because of the horrendous bureaucracy above them. Every attempt at change was snuffed out before it could take hold. There was always someone at the top trying to keep a lid on any bad news that might leak out and quite frankly, it made me ashamed and extremely frustrated to be a part of it.

What bad leaders do to us, around the world

Right now, no matter where you are in the world, there is a bad leader stepping on someone’s self-worth. Holding people down, being sexist, taking credit for the work of others, bullying people, lying and backstabbing.

The thing that makes my blood boil is that what bad leaders do is not only themselves down – they affect the lives of others. The people I feel for are those that go to work every day dreading walking into their workplace and facing that “leader”. The ones who feel that tight ball in the pit of their stomach as anxiety grips them. The ones that have lost all confidence in themselves because someone has been telling them they are no good, often for years. The ones that don’t feel they can make change because they have lost their sense of self worth.

So how do we start counteracting the effects of bad leaders to our self-esteem, careers and general well-being, to make for a happy career?

There seems little you can do to fight back against these leaders – after all, they are the boss. Many of them manage upwards very well, meaning that their own managers think they’re doing a good job while the people below them are being stepped on. A recent Gallup poll found that 50% of respondents left a job to get away from a bad manager.

Counteracting what bad leaders do by having an open discussion about performance

Even though a lot of people don’t seem to like their bosses, I don’t want to pretend that it’s all the leader’s fault. It’s worth trying to address the issues before you write the situation off as a lost cause.

If you are able to muster the courage to do so, it can be beneficial to address your concerns directly with your boss. One way to do this is to simply frame the discussion as a way of obtaining feedback about your performance. Some leaders are just poor communicators and fail to convey what they want – meaning they get annoyed and start treating people like dirt. Being proactive to open up communication lines can release the tension and allow the boss the opportunity to be constructive.

This can be helpful because some leaders only continue to treat people badly because they aren’t thinking about the effect they are having on people and because they are never challenged or questioned.

If you’re not ready to have that daunting conversation with your boss, see if you can find someone to discuss the issues with – maybe a leader in your organisation at the same level as your boss. This will help you assess your concerns and make sure you are thinking straight.

Counteracting what bad leaders do by strengthening your self worth

The worst thing a bad leader can do is to stomp on you so often that you no longer believe that you are good at what you do. This has a few effects – firstly, you tend not to look for new jobs because you don’t believe you’re good enough to get them. Secondly, you tend to resent the leader such that your negative attitude shines through – you may even start to bait them, resulting in even more damage! Lastly, your lack of self confidence means that you are less likely to speak up about things that aren’t right.

The best thing to do is to start repairing your self worth so that you can make clear, purposeful decisions about the future. Sometimes your situation can feel so overwhelming that you fail to see a way out. But there almost always is, and it starts with your self confidence.

  • Step 1. Buy a journal (or steal one from work!)
  • Step 2. At the end of each workday, write down three things that you think you did well during the course of the day. They don’t have to be tremendous accomplishments – and they aren’t based on other people’s opinions – this is your opinion.
  • Step 3. Monitor your own self-talk and watch for negative and critical language…”failed”, “stupid”. Write down instances of negative talk and create a potential replacement phrase that you could use instead. Instead of “I forgot to book the meeting”, try “next time I’ll prepare a schedule in advance so that the meetings are organised”.
  • Step 4. When you feel happy or content at work (sometimes you will), write down what you were doing at the time. Build this list over time. This list is useful for building the characteristics of your ideal job – finding a position that includes as many of these items as possible.

Notice how the steps above don’t contain anything about your crappy boss? It’s all about you. The more you can pick out the positives in your work day, the more that you’ll realise it’s not as bleak as it seems – sure, your boss might be terrible, but that doesn’t mean you’re worthless. Use this realisation to kick yourself into gear and start making a change.

Counteracting what bad leaders do by coming up with a plan

One of the worst things that people do in their careers is to sit in jobs they don’t like because they don’t know what else to do. If you don’t know what else you want to do, then you will most likely continue to do the same thing.

You can even read my Career Strategy book to help you get started!

The key here is to understand what you want to do next and to come up with a plan for getting there. If your current work situation is untenable, then it’s time to look forward to something else, in another team or another organisation. The best way you can do this is to understand the skills you need to develop in order to get that next opportunity. This might be by doing some training or simply using free online resources to increase your skills and knowledge. Just make sure you come up with a clear idea of what you want to do next.

Start thinking about the next step – it will take your mind off your current situation and give you the confidence that there is a way out.

There you have it – a simple guide for people wanting to rise up against their crappy bosses and make their lives just that bit better. Don’t put up with bad leadership, nobody deserves it. I wish you the best of luck.

Have you had a bad boss who has held you down in the past? I’d love to hear about it – leave a comment!

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