One of the ironies of work relationships is that we tend to gain more in-depth lessons from bad bosses than good ones. The endless list of bad bosses includes the following: assholes, control freaks, time wasters, poor communicators and etc. At one time or other nearly all of us have to deal with a bad boss. And most of us spend time trying to avoid them, rather than learn from them. Recently, however, I was reminded by Adam Phillips, a smart Freudian psychoanalyst, of the fact that bad bosses offer a significant good:
People become real to us by frustrating us. If they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.
That’s not to say that we don’t learn from good bosses. We all love to work for a boss who’s excellent at managing senior execs and resources, keeping his organization’s objectives and strategy in focus and who gives guidance to the team, both as a group and one-on-one. A boss of that sort is of inestimable value. I’ve learned plenty from such bosses.
Candidly, however, I learned the most from a poor boss. He was the nicest guy, everybody’s friend and always effusive with praise. . . the very epitome of likability. I read all the classic traits of likability into his person: friendliness, warmth, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and, of course, morality. But after a long period of time, his likability began to wear thin. And that’s where the real learning began to show its messy face.
"Nice, but incompetent"
The particular form of bad boss I faced was the “nice, but incompetent, guy.” Systematic research excuses my difficulty and reveals that warmth (or likability) dominates our insights early on. Indeed, likability even disguises a person’s lack of intelligence, skill, creativity and efficiency—the very definition of competency. And, initially, I was seduced.
The research shows that warmth or “nice-guyness” carries a lot more weight. That makes sense to an evolutionary psychologist because another person's intent for good or bad is a lot more important to survival than whether or not a person has the smarts to act on his intentions. Not only do we make nice-guy judgments about someone first, we also make those judgments very rapidly. Furthermore, those judgments do not readily disintegrate. We tend to hold them tightly, blinding us to damaging incompetence.
According to Wharton’s Michael Useem, the research on incompetent bosses is deadly. It shows that bad bosses sap motivation, kill productivity, and can make you want to run from the job screaming. And, yeah, that was my experience.
Certainly my boss wasn’t a demeaning asshole. But if I’d understood earlier on that, in spite of his friendliness, he was significantly incompetent, I’d have treated him far differently. Recognizing the political implications of his power, I’d have been less transparent. I would have spent time educating him on a few issues and learned to be very discreet on others. I would also have built an even stronger network outside his range.
But my understanding of managerial incompetence, disguised by likability grew by leaps and bounds. Like anyone else, I like nice guys. But now, I very quickly look beyond their friendliness to their competence. Distinguishing between likability and competence is exceptionally clarifying. It helps us make more effective decisions regarding our relationship and our career. And it also saves us a lot of time.Flickr photo: gunnisal