How to rid your organisation of bad bosses

by 09 Oct 2012

How do your employees really rate their boss? Despite having served as a senior HR advisor in one of Australia’s largest employers, this is a question I’ve never seen on any of our strategic agendas.

Three out of every four people report their boss is the most stressful part of their job. Even model employees have been found to turn “negative and unproductive if their bosses are rude or mean spirited,” gossiping rather than working, stealing, backstabbing and taking longer breaks. 

Given most employees endure a difficult boss for around 22 months, that’s plenty of time to allow the costs to add up.

At a personal level, the constant levels of stress and negativity that result from working for a bad boss can undermine an employee’s performance, damage their health, destroy their relationships and leave them feeling depressed and anxious. No wonder unhappy employees take more sick days, staying home an average of 1.25 more days per month, or 15 extra sick days a year.

At an organisational level, current estimates suggest poor relationships between staff and their managers cost companies around $360 billion each year in lost productivity. When one organisation decided to deduct from a boss salary the financial costs incurred by his bad behaviour the total in one year added up to nearly $160,000. 

So how can HR help organisations rid themselves of bad bosses? 

The good news is the majority of bad bosses are good people doing a bad job because they lack the mindset, skills and experience to bring out the best in their teams. New studies in positive psychology have found while there is no one magic formula for being a great boss there are rather five proven, practical approaches anyone can be taught:


  1. Boost positivity – research has found that If people are having fun, they’re going to work harder, stay longer, maintain their composure in a crisis and take better care of the organisation. Simple interventions like starting meetings with “What’s going well?” and taking the time to personally thank people for their efforts can shift the mood of a team.


  1. Engage their strengths – Employees who have the opportunity to use their strengths – the things they enjoy and are good at - are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life. It takes only 20 minutes to use a free tool like the VIA Survey ( to find out when your team is at their best.


  1. Cultivate good relationships – Socially connected teams enjoy lower absenteeism and turnover rates and increased employee motivation and engagement. Taking the time to respond actively and constructively to people’s good news and investing in casual social opportunities during office hours helps people to feel safer within a team.


  1. Encourage a sense of purpose – Workers who have a clear sense of purpose about their roles and feel connected to something larger than themselves gain greater happiness and satisfaction from their job. Helping managers understand the need to provide role clarity and a sense of meaning for employees enables them to perform with greater dedication and better results. 


  1. Recognise and celebrate accomplishments – For all of us, pleasure comes as much from making progress towards a goal, as it does from achieving them.  Teaching managers to provide specific, deliberate and immediate recognition around big and small accomplishments can be even more motivating than money.


Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, also suggests measuring locally. What if anonymous employee ratings on the performance of their boss were published in a company league table tied to eligibility for promotion or bonuses?

In businesses where a higher proportion of employees report their immediate bosses care about them – employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity are higher and so is profitability.  So what are you doing to rid your workplace of bad bosses?


About the author

Michelle McQuaid is a positive psychology expert and author who fuses her passion for neuroscience and playful design into proven, practical actions to bring out the best in people. She has written her first book "5 Reasons to Tell Your Boss to go F**k Themselves: How to Use Positive Psychology to Get What You Want" in bookstores and on Amazon from 1 October 2012.


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