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Confessions of a bad boss, and 5 ways to become better

6 min read


Michelle McQuaid

Ever worked for a bad boss? You know the type. They’re constantly stressing you out as they struggle to meet the demands of their job. They’re obsessed with themselves and overlook the contributions you could make if you were given a chance. They undermine your relationships, squeeze the sense of meaning from your job and never really help you to progress.

Well, my name is Michelle McQuaid, and I’ve been a bad boss. I didn’t mean to be. I just didn’t know better. Unfortunately for my employees, it took me a while to figure this out.

I was appointed to general manager in my career, and while I never meant my employees harm, I was all about completing the tasks. Blessed with huge reserves of energy and an active imagination, I’d create huge ideas to deliver competitive advantage, then wonder why my team struggled to realize them.

I perfected a withering look for what I considered “stupid” questions that left them in fear of messing things up. I selfishly demanded people execute my ideas with no real regard for what different team members enjoyed. I invested heavily in relationships with bosses but rarely did the same for my team. I was single-minded in the pursuit of our goals and, in my rush, failed to appreciate important individual moments of progress by employees.

I got things done, so I kept being promoted. The stress I created for each person who worked for me was just considered collateral damage. When I think of it now, the shame is all-encompassing.

How I learned what I was doing wrong

I didn’t really know I was a bad boss until I went to back to school to learn the science of positive psychology. Drawn to this field because I wanted to learn how to bring out the best in people — particularly at work — it was only as I came to understand how our brains work that I realized the harm I’d caused.

Martin Seligman, often acknowledged as the founder of positive psychology, has discovered that, to live our best lives, there are five essential elements of well-being we should try to maximize: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement (sometimes referred to as PERMA).

When bosses consistently and pervasively compromise these elements, we can undermine employee performance, damage health and relationships and leave people feeling depressed and anxious.

How can a bad boss cause all of that?

The stress and negativity that result from working for a bad boss do more than make you feel bad — they change the way your brain and body operate. They limit your ability to think and act.

The hidden costs of a bad boss

An overload of negative emotions makes it difficult for you to perform well. Your worldview narrows, making it difficult to see opportunities. Your levels of dopamine and serotonin decline, making it tough to think quickly, creativity or laterally, leaving you in a decision-making rut. Left to linger, the stress of negative emotions eventually harms your ability to learn by shrinking your hippocampus, which is your fortress of memory.

This is why studies suggest the unhappiness inflicted by a bad boss decreases your effectiveness and undermines your performance, often resulting in reduced earnings, fewer promotions and reduced success at work.

By design, negativity inspires you to protect yourself, which often means pulling back from others. Unfortunately, this separation can insulate you from what you need most — love and support from people who care about you. So, it comes as no surprise that the tension caused by bad bosses has been found to detrimentally affect marriages and families.

Most frighteningly, when stress becomes chronic, it eventually shifts brain chemistry toward anxiety or depression, affects immune response and cardiovascular functioning, and elevates the risk of colds, diseases, strokes and heart attacks. Turns out, it’s no coincidence that heart attacks are more likely to occur on Mondays or that employees who have a good relationship with their boss are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease.

Luckily, my studies in positive psychology woke me up to the damage I was inflicting and taught me how to become a much better boss.

5 ways to be a better boss

What I learned is there isn’t one magical thing that defines a great boss but rather five proven, practical approaches anyone can apply:

  1. Boost positivity and don’t inflict or spread emotional debris across the office. Learning to start agendas with the question “What’s going well?” forever changed my team meetings.
  2. Allow each people to use their strengths as a means of boosting engagement and productivity. Using free tools like the VIA Survey made it easy for me to shape roles and responsibilities to which my team were fully committed.
  3. Cultivate good relationships among all team members so people feel valued, respected and motivated. Learning to take the time to actively and constructively ask questions of my team about how things were going — at work and outside of it — allowed us to get more done than I’d ever achieved by only focusing on getting the task done.
  4. Provide context for team roles and connect the team to a sense of purpose that is larger than themselves. Providing clarity about why what we’re trying to achieve matters for the organization — and, if possible, ourselves and the wider community — and improves the team’s level of dedication and results.
  5. Appreciate each person’s effort and give this feedback in a frequent and timely manner. This allows employees to value their progress. I’ve learned that providing specific, deliberate and immediate words of thanks for my team is more energizing than any one-off bonus.

Since completing my studies, I faithfully apply these five approaches to ensure the well-being of my teams. These have been the high points of my career in terms of business outcomes and personal feedback, rocketing me to the top of my profession. Research suggests I’m not an anomaly. In businesses where a high proportion of employees report that their immediate bosses care about them, employee satisfaction, retention and productivity are higher, and so is profitability.

Best of all, I sleep much better at night, knowing that I’ve tried today to be a good boss.

Michelle McQuaid is an expert in bringing out the best in people at work, fusing positive psychology and neuroscience through her videos, books, training programs and games. Martin Seligman has introduced her as “one of the world’s leaders in designing and delivering positive psychology programs in workplaces.” Her first book is being published this month.