They Call ‘Em ‘Horrible Bosses’ for a Reason

Take charge of your career. Be more proactive in the boss-employee relationship.

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If you have a bad boss, they can’t pay you enough to stay.

Bad bosses, I’d go so far as to say, are even more of a demotivator than low pay, and the impact will last far longer than the next paycheck. People who work for a bad boss aren’t championed.

Their self-confidence and self-esteem are destroyed. The problem is so common that people don’t really leave companies, they leave bosses. We’ve heard it all: managers who promise you a promotion, then give it to somebody else; who are stingy with feedback; who show no interest that you have a life beyond work; who never, ever listen; who say one thing and do another… There’s a million of them. In fact, people have problems with bosses about 50 percent of the time.

Despite the importance of the boss, this relationship is often overlooked when people weigh the benefits of their current or next job. They focus on more obvious “headlines”—their current pay and the raise they just got or didn’t get. (Don’t get me wrong, chronically low wage growth across the economy is increasingly the focus among employees and employers alike.)

It isn’t an easy problem to solve in today’s world, which is far less hierarchical and much more agile and fluid. The days of “climb the ladder and get a gold watch”—with predictable, linear career paths and a stair-step pattern of advancement—are long over. Careers today are more like labyrinths, with both advancement and lateral moves.

Moreover, people change jobs more quickly than in past generations; the average millennial might have 25 or 30 jobs in his or her lifetime. Average job tenure is about four years, and less for younger professionals. Employees are more transient, and employers are not enduring stewards of careers. This has changed the relationship between employee and employer to a new short-term reality that I call the “we’re just dating” arrangement—neither party is fully committed.

Where does all this movement lead? The hope for the employee is more money. But that’s often not the case.

It’s understandable that people want to make more money, so they give salary oversized importance. The real danger is when this happens at career junctures. Someone considers leaving a job they like and a boss they get along with only because another position pays more—without thinking sufficiently about what that move will do for their learning and career trajectory. In essence, they’re trading medium-term for short-term. And when people are bragging about their new job to friends, they rarely mention anything more than money—and never talk about who their boss is and what they are learning.

The most important consideration in any job, current or future, is how it positions you for new opportunities. This goes back to the 70-20-10 rule of thumb in professional development. Stretch assignments and other opportunities to learn new skills account for the largest portion. The 20 percent is learning from people, especially your manager—who, by the way, is the gateway to the 70 percent. Only 10 percent is training and courses.

Learning leads to growth, and growth leads to more job responsibility, which creates more career opportunities—ultimately leading to more money. One aspect of a “committed” work relationship (versus “we’re just dating”) is engaging in ongoing dialogue about targets and milestones, establishing a natural give-and-take around performance targets (revenue, margins, and profits), and setting the stage for advancement and the pay that goes with it. You can’t wait for the annual review—the world is not once-a-year, and neither is your performance.

Given the world in which we live today, my advice for employees is to take charge of your career. Be more proactive in the boss-employee relationship.

That only applies, of course, if you work for someone who is genuinely interested in your development. If not, then you’ve got yourself a “horrible boss.” And, money or not, it’s only a matter of time…

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