Where have all the good bosses gone?

I listen to all sorts of stories of dysfunctional workplaces for living. I love what I do, but there are days when I wonder where all the sane people have gone.

The boss from hell is perhaps the most common workplace character that shows up regularly in discussions with my clients. We all want leaders who lead by example, defend, coach, and support us and have our best interests, rather than themselves, in mind. These leaders seem to be as rare as unicorns.

I hear about bosses who are outright sadistic and mean. I hear about bosses who take bribes, who abuse the system to the max for their benefit and gain. I hear about bosses who target and scapegoat a single employee in the most vicious and damaging ways. Some enjoy plotting employees or departments against each other and watch from the sidelines. Some spy on their subordinates (as in s-p-y, not just observe or control how people work), some gossip and share confidential HR information widely, some try to have sex with everything that moves on two legs, and if rejected, retaliate. I hear about bosses who order employees or HR to lie, cheat, or cover-up, and employees are thrown under the bus if they get caught. Paranoia, jealousy, entitlement, and temper tantrums are rife. The persons who win the favors of these bosses are those who can suck up the best.

Am I too negative or too biased because of my profession? Surely the majority are good old-fashioned leaders that we can look up to? They got their jobs because they were leadership material?

Well… Research on the topic is clear. The dark triad of psychological characteristics that includes narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathology are more prevalent among persons in leadership positions. Often psychologically damaged people aspire to leadership positions. We know that people leave bosses, not workplaces. We also know that only 13% of people are engaged in their work, and this figure is probably even lower after the recent events. Is it any wonder that most organizations operate like highly dysfunctional families.

If we know this, why are we not doing something about it? Lack of knowledge is not the reason. Quick research on google scholar on abusive supervision returns 149’000 articles. The tricky part is that, while leadership skills can be taught, persons who are highly damaged on the inside are not able to absorb the knowledge and behave accordingly. Traumatized people perpetuate trauma. This creates a vicious cycle.

Mental health issues have exploded, and many employees feel lost and fearful. While we can and should take our workplace mental wellness into our own hands, it is also appropriate to ask what leaders can do. Organizations are organic systems. The emotional maturity and psychological state of the leaders are reflected directly in the general organizational wellbeing.

We all have experienced incidents that left a negative mark on us, even if we often do not recognize or remember those incidents. The more self-awareness and emotional maturity a person has, the better they can lead. The most inspiring bosses are those who have been through a lot and have emerged with integrity, knowledge, and wisdom. Most of us want to work for organizations that are run by adults rather than wounded and emotional 3-5-year-olds.

When more leaders do their inner work and take their personal and professional development to the next level, everyone benefits, and the good boss is no longer a mythical figure.