A valuable lesson from working with a difficult and demotivating boss

Psychological safety is vital in a health, resilient workplace. Find out why in this article highlighting the impact of working for a difficult and demotivating boss.

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I remember working for a boss whose mantra was “image management.” He was obsessed with the idea of managing upwards and only reporting the positive.

I can see now that he was managing his career with those above him and it was all about painting a great picture of both him and what he could deliver. Some people would respect that and see that as a healthy part of leadership and career development. A reality of life in organisations the world over. I certainly didn’t see it that way. Working for that guy was difficult and demotivating.

His constant desire to completely white wash upwards with the positive drove me nuts and if you are wondering, it didn’t work both ways. In 1:1s and appraisals he would focus heavily on what I needed to improve and the talk time focused heavily on the negative.

He gave little praise. He was self-centred and it as all about him.

Or was it? If life is about image then we are the best protectors of our own image and if you don’t want to look:

Stupid ———————————————– don’t ask questions

Incompetent ————————————– don’t ask for feedback

Negative ——————————————- don’t be doubtful or criticise

Disruptive —————————————– don’t suggest anything innovative

Perhaps he just needed to feel safe in his environment?

But what if we all behaved this way?

We’d never get anything done. Notice the word “we” in that statement. We are designed to work better in teams and it’s built into our DNA. Working in teams allows us to sense check our ideas by asking questions and gathering feedback. Working in teams allows us to pull apart our core objectives and develop plan B by being doubtful and working in teams allows us to disrupt through innovation.

And here’s the thing. The real thing. The point of writing this post.

We all have a psychological need to feel safe in our environment. To feel safe, you must feel you have the respect of the people around you. To feel respected, teams must embrace cognitive diversity and even though the aim is the same goal, acknowledge different thinking styles are something to be valued. Different views on the world around us bring unique insights and ways of looking at problems. Different views on the world, particularly in times of adversity, are key to resilience.

My boss at the time was certainly managing his image although his motivation was questionable. Perhaps he was solely focused on himself and progressing his career or perhaps he had a strong need to feel safe in his environment and at no point did he consider how unsafe his approach made me feel. Either way we will never know although the experience taught me a valuable lesson.

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