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How to identify tough bosses and bad bosses

Bosses aren't always easy to work for, but a boss who has high standards isn't the same as one who's just bad at the job. Learn the differences.

6 min read


How to identify tough bosses and bad bosses

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You have heard people saying, “I have a bad boss.” Compare that with another statement, “I have a tough boss.”

Though the difference is subtle, they portray a sharp contrast in character. Team members hate working for a bad boss but admire a tough cookie. Sure, tough bosses aren’t easy to impress, but they sure do challenge people to improve over time.

So what differentiates a lousy boss from a tough one? Here are five differences in their approach and thought process:

1. Feedback

Giving the right feedback at the right time in the right way is imperative to the growth of an employee.

A tough boss does not hesitate to give positive and negative feedback. Though the team members may not always like what they hear, they know that the feedback serves the better good. Besides, a tough boss delivers feedback such that employees realize their flaws and work toward improvement. These pointers are never personal or offensive.

A bad boss almost always fails to provide the right feedback. Managers ineffective at feedback fall under two categories:

  • Those who only point out the mistakes
  • Those who are uncomfortable suggesting flaws to correct

The first kind make life a living hell for their employees and are the reason behind Monday blues every week. They point out every little problem and sometimes even do so in public. Their words come across as offensive and humiliating.

2. Delegation

Tough bosses will a project to a team or a person and keep a tab on the overall progress. They do not involve themselves with the nitty-gritty of every task. They allow people to take the lead and do not hesitate to point out improvements whenever applicable.

By contrast, bad bosses feel the need to micromanage. They are usually control freaks who feels the need to know every little aspect of the ongoing work. People are not allowed to make their own judgments and have to defer for approvals on any decision.

Tough bosses make employees stronger by putting them under a high-pressure situation. Bad bosses cultivate a herd of sheep by not providing people the privilege of using their own thinking.

3. Focus

Tough bosses focus more on people and less on tasks. They pay keen attention to an employee’s performance, growth and learning. They are quick to point out when team members aren’t improving their skills or are performing at a subpar level. Tough bosses also applaud the good work.

Bad bosses place all their attention on tasks. They are least bothered about how people are doing or feeling. If the work is done, they relax back on their chairs. When someone makes a mistake, they pounce like a hyena.

Tough bosses know that if they take care of people, the tasks will be cared for in return.

4. Presence

Tough bosses step up when things spin out of control. When people panic, these bosses know how to calm the nerves and think straight. They do not hesitate to take the blame when the team messes up. But when people succeed, they step aside to let team members enjoy the attention.

Bad bosses hog the limelight during success. When the team messes up, they hold those employees responsible and accountable. They are quick to point the blame to defend themselves but make sure they grabs all the credit for a job well done.

5. Setting expectations

Tough bosses set demanding expectations. At the same time, they clearly know those goals are not impossible to achieve. They set goals that are challenging enough to help team members stretch beyond the comfort zone to grow.

Tough bosses communicate about the difficulties clearly and provide guidance on how to achieve the targets. They put intermediate milestones to review progress and discusses obstacles. Though they set the bar high, they give all the support needed to pull the job off.

Bad bosses do not have a clear idea about how easy or difficult the goals are. Sometimes they are too easy and sometimes downright impossible. Bad bosses speak about the goals and then vanish until the deadline. If people fail to meet the target, bad bosses consider them incompetent.

How to identify the type of boss you are

If you are a manager or a boss, you may have a hard time spotting the above characteristics in yourself. Instead, you can use a different method of observation to identify what type of a boss you are.

1. The morale and growth of people

A tough boss earns the respect of people. If people you work with admire your leadership, you are on the right track. Instead, if people fear to have a conversation with you, your methods might need correction.

Under a good boss, people naturally improve and morale remains high. If your team members have stagnated for a couple of years, you’re not a boss people love to work for.

2. Unsolicited positive feedback

Tough bosses regularly hear people mention how they challenged them and helped them grow. While the kind words spoken about a leader on stage might be fabricated, a random appreciation in private is always heartfelt.

If no one has walked up to you and appreciated you without a reason, you have failed to make a positive impact on your people.

3. Where your team is headed

If someone asked a random team member what the vision for their team was, would they have an answer? Even if they can put together a couple of sentences, how consistent would that response be across the team?

A tough boss reiterates the vision of the team and develops people such that they get there together. Team members working for such a leader are clear about their goals and work as one cohesive unit.

A bad boss only worries about tasks. Employees working for such a leader have no clue about the vision. They scamper around like sheep without a shepherd.


Organizations are full of bad bosses whose whole and sole focus is on results. The tough bosses who help people become better versions of themselves are only a handful.

If you are a leader, you not only have a responsibility to deliver results but also to nurture the growth of your people. If you get the balance right, people will be willing to work for you whether you’re their boss on paper or not.

So which category do you fall under?


Maxim Dsouza is a self-improvement blogger who has over a decade of experience with startups. He has led teams for over a decade, made mistakes and learned the hard way. He shares what he has learned on his blog, Productive Club. His content focuses on productivity, time management, entrepreneurship and cognitive biases.

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