The Surprising Benefits of a Bad Boss

Difficult bosses are everywhere, but Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says there are ways to capitalize on the experience.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of "The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader."

Hating the boss is practically a national pastime.

People love to gripe about the bad ones, relishing in watercooler stories of “check out what happened this time!” There’s certainly no shortage of examples in the bad boss hall of shame:

  • Two-Faced Tony, who promises you the promotion is “in the bag!” But when he calls a staff meeting, you’re stuck cutting the “congratulations” cake for your co-worker, who landed “your” new gig.
  • Insincere Irene, who has never, in the five years you’ve worked together, asked about your family. At the last company social event, she called your spouse by the wrong name—though they’ve met several times.
  • Colin the Clueless, who asks “how was your weekend?” and keeps walking as you explain you put down your beloved dog last night. “Cool. So when is this meeting—10 or 11?”
  • Do-as-I-Say Donna, who demands face time in the office five day a week from everyone, but works from home starting Thursday to beat the weekend traffic.
  • Ron the Reliable, who for three years has been promising your annual performance review will be “next week.”
  • Snake-in-the-Grass Stanley, who to your face says “don’t sweat it, you’re gold here.” Then you inadvertently overhear him say your name on a call about looming layoffs and the words “he’s toast.”

So what do you do? Your work life is miserable because of your boss, and your home life isn’t benefiting either. If you’re like most people, you’ll quit! The fact is, people don’t leave jobs—they leave bosses.

But not so fast... For one thing, people have trouble with bosses about half the time. So if you make a hasty career move, the grass may not be much greener in the next place.

The good news is a bad boss doesn’t last forever—either you or the boss will eventually leave. In the meantime, as strange as it may sound, surviving a boss who’s unreasonable, difficult, clueless, bumbling, etc. can be a great education.

Your experiences at work—the good, the bad, and the I’d-rather-not-talk-about-it—account for about 70% of your professional development. Another 20% comes from people you interact with, and that includes your bad boss. Only 10% is from formal training.

Enduring a bad boss is a crash course in how not to act and how not to treat people. It’s simply a lot easier to do the opposite of what a bad boss does (Lesson No. 1: Don’t be a jerk) than it is trying to emulate all the stellar qualities of a great boss.

Having a bad boss also bolsters your coping skills. And, believe me, you’re going to need them: One study I read showed that working for a terrible manager can be as detrimental to your health as secondhand smoke. So the more resilient you are in the face of boss adversity, the better (and healthier) you’ll be.

You have a choice in what you do. That co-worker who just got the promotion you were promised needs your support to be successful. Taking the high road isn’t a one-way trip to martyrdom, it actually elevates you in the eyes of your peers and others—maybe even your boss’s boss.

And one day (not that you’d really wish for this), you may witness your bad boss stepping into a real mess. Here’s one of my favorite business parables.

A new CEO held his first town-hall meeting with employees. He charged up to the podium to show that he was the new boss and things were going to change. As the CEO spoke, he noticed a man in the corner who wasn’t paying attention. He had on jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap on backward. The nerve of this guy!

The CEO called him out. “How much do you make a week?”

The guy shrugged. “About four hundred bucks.”

The CEO reached into his pocket, pulled out a thousand dollars in cash, and told the man he was “out of here!”

The guy counted the bills with a sly grin all the way to the door.

 After the meeting, the CEO called one of his senior vice presidents over and said, “I sure made an example of that guy.”

“Yeah, he was surprised,” the SVP replied. “By the way, that was Johnny, the pizza delivery guy who brought us lunch. He certainly appreciated the tip you gave him.”

The moral of the story: Bad bosses almost always have their comeuppance. But you don’t have to wait for the downfall. Learn all you can (especially what not to do), develop your skills, and become more resilient. In time (on average after about two years), you’ll be off to your next job—wiser and more experienced—leaving that bad boss behind.