I have been in the working world for almost a decade now, and in that time I’ve had several different types of bosses, some good and some not so good. My current boss is very good, and I enjoy working under her. But we all have had bosses that we’ve been relieved to be rid of. Lately I have found myself wondering, in the realm of bad bosses, which type is the worst? Which kind of bad boss does the most damage to the organization? In the movie Horrible Bosses, there are three stereotypes of bad bosses:
David Harken – The Manipulative, Self-Loving Psycho. This boss is a self-centered slave driver who plays employees off each other for his own benefit and amusement.
Dr. Julia Harris – The Harassing Man-Eater. This is the boss who knows how play the perceptions game, and is always the victim when they are backed into a corner. Accepting responsibility for their actions is not in their playbook, and they are well known for throwing their subordinates under the bus.
Bobby Pellitt – The Apathetic Incompetent. They want all of the benefits of being the boss, without having to do any of the work. Whenever they do get involved, they make the situation worse for everyone else, who has to clean up the mess they’ve made.
These are all horrible types of bosses, and all of them are damaging to the organization that they work for. But I would argue that none of these are the worst. They are all bad, and their employees will flee them for good reason. But when it comes to the amount of damage they can do to an organization, I would argue that none of them can compare to The Gutless Wonder.
The Gutless Wonder boss is generally a nice person. They are friendly towards everyone and place heavy emphasis on pleasing people. They seem like the perfect boss, until you work under one. These bosses are so worried about pleasing people that they are incapable of making a decision about anything, especially if it is a tough decision involving budgets, staffing or discipline. Rather than assuming responsibility for tough decisions, they farm it out to others or procrastinate and hope someone else will make the decision for them. This is the work equivalent of the Cool Parent: They are trying so hard to be their kid’s friend that they forget to actually be a parent.
Why is the Gutless Wonder the worst of the bad bosses? I would argue that it is because every organization has David, Julia and Bobby in every department and at every level. They may not be a boss, but they exist in your workforce and likely in your team. When you all happen to work under a Gutless Wonder, David, Julia and Bobby can run amok, sowing division and carving out areas of power for themselves within the team, while making life miserable for everyone else. And with the Gutless Wonder in charge, there is no check on their behavior. The work environment quickly becomes toxic, and it is almost impossible to address it even outside of your team, since discipline would almost always be referred back to The Gutless Wonder.
In this scenario, the potential for organizational damage is high. With a dysfunctional team being broken apart and ruled like mini-fiefdoms, work falls through the cracks. Communication breaks down. It is only a matter of time before a serious mistake damages the team or even the company, a mistake that could easily have been prevented had the Gutless Wonder been able to address the issues in their team. But the worst part is that the dysfunction is often easy to mask to those outside of the team or the organization. You can limp along like this for an extended amount of time, building up more and more toxicity as you gain more projects and more responsibility. Employees who can flee the toxic environment, but there may not be enough of an increase to point to a direct cause.
For the organization, it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Higher turnover. Lower Morale. Culture Crisis. The dysfunction isn’t obvious enough for it to be spotted and addressed, as it would be under a David, Julia or Bobby. It’s insidious, and that makes it deadlier to the organization in the long run.