As new US comedy ‘Horrible Bosses’ is released in UK cinemas this week, Gareth Chick, Director of UK business consultancy, Spring Partnerships, looks at what constitutes a ‘horrible boss’ and what employees can do to handle them.

According to Gareth, a horrible boss has eight distinct personality traits and there are four strategies that can help employees cope.

The 8 Traits of Horrible Bosses

1. They believe in a 4th Law of Thermodynamics

The three principle Laws of Thermodynamics explain how the physical universe works. Some physicists think there is a 4th ‘Zeroth’ Law, however, Horrible Bosses are certain a 4th law exists. It is the law that states that nothing happens unless they are physically there to witness it. The hard pressed employee may have been putting in 12 hour days, but if the Boss doesn’t see it, it will count for nothing.

2. They are skilled and habitual liars
Horrible Bosses lie. They have to, since they are continually constructing reasons (excuses) for why their results are so poor. Many times the lies are not blatant, since they could be caught out, so a typical example will be a massive generalisation, or when the Boss states a ‘fact’ that is in reality only their opinion. If they are challenged, they will counter it with a well rehearsed and vigorous defence of the ‘truth’. When coupled with their habit of ‘conveniently’ forgetting things (things they have said or committed to), this trait is almost impossible to navigate.

3. They belittle people
It would be wrong to assume that Horrible Bosses are mere unconscious organisms thrashing through the day with no strategy in place. They are in fact capable of some very proactive behaviour. One of these is to motivate their employees with humour, personal favour and familiarity. This manifests in for example, hugely inappropriate use of sexual innuendo, sarcasm, devising nicknames etc. Since Toxic Bosses often have to recover situations when even they realise they have gone too far with their employees, they also tend to use inappropriate rewards as bribes or to salve their own conscience. They will even apologise but only if they fear that some 3rd party authority could be called in.

4. They actively promote ‘Them and Us’
‘Them and Us’ cultures are perhaps the most pernicious type within organisations. Horrible Bosses are great promoters of ‘them and us’, since it helps their cause in two ways. First of all it means they can ‘divide and conquer’ their subordinates – if their employees are fighting amongst themselves, then they can’t notice how bad their Boss is. Secondly it means they can avoid accountability for real results such as sales and profits, since they have to ‘waste’ so much time because of their dysfunctional organisation – a fact which they infer to be the fault of their own superiors.

5. They vacillate
One of the hardest things about working for a Horrible Boss is that they vacillate so much. One day they will passionately believe position X, and the next they will lambast an Employee for the utter stupidity of believing position X to be right. Horrible Bosses are often rather perversely trusted by their employees, but this is only possible if their behaviour is relatively predictable. Truly Horrible Bosses are tough to endure since their vacillation makes it almost impossible for the Employee to take predict their response, thus any sort of proactive action is simply too risky.

6. They sulk
Horrible Bosses are often just spoiled children. They are needy and self absorbed. When things don’t go their way, when they don’t get the recognition or praise they so clearly deserve, they sulk. Since Horrible Bosses can also hold a grudge with a superhuman intensity so it is best not to upset them. In fact their employees often are the ones to tell their Boss how brilliant they are and how the team simply could not do without their leadership and their ideas.

7. They bully and manipulate
The Horrible Boss bullies people. This can be overt, in the form of swearing, shouting or generally being physically intimidating. The truly Horrible Boss knows how to bully under the radar – belittling, criticising and undermining their Employees. They are also skilled manipulators, knowing how to play on their Employees’ fears and emotions of guilt.

8. They disappear
T S Eliot plaintively cried “Macavity’s not there” in his famous poem. Macavity the Mystery Cat defied Scotland Yard, because whenever they were about to catch him in the act, the cry would go up “Macavity’s not there”. The Horrible Boss has the supreme ability to disappear when problems arise – literally to go missing, returning with some plausible excuse (of which they have a never ending litany), incredulous that the crisis arose, yet delighted that the world has proven once more that bad things happen when they are not around. Truly they are indispensible.

The four strategies for Handling Horrible Bosses
The greatest single remedy for employees is awareness – to know that it is not them. Horrible bosses are dangerous because they cause employees to come to believe they are at fault, not their Boss. So being aware you do in fact work for a horrible boss is a massive relief and can in itself keep the employee in relatively good mental health.

The Four Strategies to cope with a Horrible Boss:

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A) Coping
Anyone can handle being managed by a Horrible Boss for a short period of time. It is simply a matter of adopting, either individually or collectively, some coping mechanisms. This might include huge amounts of communication about activities, making sure the Boss gets the recognition, smiling inanely at their embarrassing humour, or covering for them when they go AWOL.

B) Outliving
Whereas a coping strategy is by definition not trying to change the Boss, but merely survive and endure until something changes, a strategy of outliving the Boss is more proactive and is designed to contribute to bringing about the Boss’s demise. This is more likely to be a conspiratorial strategy with similarly beleaguered colleagues.

This strategy may include the covert fostering of relationships with 3rd parties, particularly the Horrible Boss’s own superiors, and making sure that it is the employees who are recognised for any successes.

C) Whistle Blowing
The scariest of all strategies is to be the one who exposes the Horrible Boss. A failed attempt at a coup will leave the employee in a worse position, where leaving is probably inevitable. Many employees, even if they have the personal strength and integrity to be a whistle-blower, refrain because they cannot see a good end result for the organisation or themselves. So why take the risk?

D) Leaving
All the research shows that employees leave Bosses, not companies. Ultimately any employee has the choice of leaving, and often this is the only course of action that resolves an insidious situation. However, this is a very tough call for the employee to make. Firstly, they have to find themselves another job, and risk jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, and secondly, they have to deal with the anger and frustration of being made to leave a job and a company that they may love but for one Horrible Boss.

About the Author
Gareth Chick, Director of UK business consultancy, Spring Partnerships

Spring Partnerships is a UK business consultancy specialising in leadership and marketing communications. It was founded early in 2003 by Stephen Archer Gareth Chick.

Each has specialist experience in the areas of sales, marketing, communications, leadership development and event management; each complementing the other to create an all encompassing consultancy.