How not to be a horrible boss

Most managers receive precious little training on how to look after others. A few simple skills can make all the difference.

If you have ever swapped horrible boss stories with friends you will know that being hilariously bad at management is frighteningly common. If you find yourself in a position of power, please do not do any of the following.

  1. Announce redundancies. Turn up the next day in an outrageously expensive brand-new supercar. Park across two spaces.
  2. Refuse to work in an open-plan space amongst your team. Instead take up office in a storeroom. Frantically wave your hands around every two minutes so that the motion detecting lights will go back on.
  3. Maintain the constant intensity of a possessed footy coach. Start every phone conversation by asking “ARE YOU FIRING?”
  4. Attempt to convert staff to your religion.
  5. Very loudly and publicly dress down others from a distance that ignores all rules of personal space. Routinely reduce staff to tears whilst covering them in spittle.
  6. Write a response to a tender that is twice the stated page limited. Ask for it to be edited. Refuse all edits and instead insist that the font size be reduced to 8 and line spacing halved.
  7. Bring your dog to work. Order someone else to clean up after it.

Quite obviously this list could go on, with many more weird and not so wonderful examples. While the healing benefits of time may make it possible to look back and laugh, in the moment a bad boss can really mess with your mental health.

Poor management can also have a huge impact on organisations, destroying morale, killing productivity and causing good people to go elsewhere.

Management matters. A Workforce Institute at UKG survey of 3,400 people worldwide rated managers as having equal impact on mental health as spouses, and even more of an impact than doctors or therapists.

Unfortunately, most people are thrust into managerial positions without any training on how to look after others. This reliable disaster recipe results in managers muddling along, repeating the mistakes of generations of untrained bosses that went before them.

Looking back on the horrible bosses I endured, I would like to think that most were not horrible people. Had they had the chance to learn these vital psychological skills, things might have been a whole lot different.

1.      Employing your wise mind

When encountering a stressful situation, many bosses are poorly equipped to deal with it. Instead of employing their wise mind, they let their reactive mind run the show. This is a major problem, because reactive minds commonly come up with terrible solutions, such as yelling, blaming or standing over others as they type, mistakenly thinking that micromanagement and garlic breath will help move things along.

A reactive boss transmits and amplifies stress, creating an environment where others feel anxious, under threat or like they must constantly walk on eggshells.

A key skill we teach in Mindarma is how to employ your wise mind. Taking just a few seconds to do this can turn managers from stress amplifiers to stress circuit breakers.

Those who employ their wise mind are able to make more considered choices. They typically come up with far better solutions and may be able to direct others in a far calmer manner that doesn’t provoke further stress.

Being able to employ your wise mind in a stressful situation is the mark of an excellent leader. No matter whether your workplace is a kitchen, a courtroom or an operating theatre, this essential management skill can be truly transformative.

2.      Coming to grips with your emotional tools

Until robots relieve us of all our working duties, we will have to deal with human emotions in the workplace. Understanding how emotions work can deliver a kind of management superpower. Sadly, for generations very few managers have attained this superpower. Instead, it has been normalised to park emotions in a remote corner, pretend they didn’t exist and muddle on like mechanics without a wrench.

Emotions are inextricably linked with values. When we understand our values, we know what is motivating us. We can take notice when something is not right and causing us unease. We can also manage others in a way that is much more supportive, designing work so it is considerate of personal values.

To get better at the emotional stuff, start with some mindful self-compassion. Self-compassion allows us to recognise, process and integrate emotional experiences in a safe and grounded way. Rather than react mindlessly to our emotions, it allows us to respond with clarity, care and grounded-ness.

Mindful self-compassion is a performance booster, which has been found to enhance our long-term motivation. It makes managers far better at supporting colleagues in an open, kind and non-judgemental manner. It can also help protect us from empathic distress fatigue and burnout, by ensuring we remember our own needs.

3.      Providing mindful support

To become a great leader become a great listener.

Many managers worry about having difficult conversations, choosing to avoid them, rather than say the wrong thing. To provide mindful support you don’t need to be a trained psychologist or counsellor. You don’t need to solve problems or have all the solutions – in fact, it’s best that you don’t.

The most useful advice is to be open, non-judgemental and compassionate. Simply letting someone be truly heard is a wonderful gift that can alleviate a huge amount of stress.

When discussing mental health, know what resources are available and be able to direct others to them. Be flexible, discuss what may be of most practical help and ask permission to check in again at a later date.

Being the boss doesn’t mean you can’t be a human. You don’t have to be faultless or always have the perfect thing to say. If in doubt, listen.

Remember, what’s truly horrible is having an environment where people feel they can’t discuss their mental health. If in doubt about what to do, simply treat others as you would like to be treated in the same situation. To make the task of managing well easier, equip yourself with some simple skills. By learning to employ your wise mind, understand your values and provide mindful support, you will make an important difference to the mental health of your team.

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Beyond developing skills, it is also important to understand your duty of care. The ways of the bad old days will simply no longer be tolerated. Changes to legislation have reinforced the requirement for leaders and managers to ensure a psychologically safe working environment.

Taking action needn’t be hard. To get started familiarise yourself with your responsibilities and the code of practice. Understand the common psychosocial hazards in your workplace that can undermine workers’ mental health.

If you have a health and safety team, ask their advice. If you are in a position of leadership, make sure the work of your health and safety team is prioritised and fully supported. Creating a culture of safety and care requires organisation-wide commitment to essential tasks including ongoing psychosocial risk assessment, implementation of controls and completion of evidence-based programs.

This type of change is nothing we should fear. Do it well and you can create a workplace that is far healthier, far more harmonious and far more successful.

Want to learn the skills that will make you a better boss? If you haven’t already, we invite you to complete Mindarma’s evidence-based e-learning program. To make a real difference to the mental wellbeing of your team, please invite them to join you! To discover a large selection of additional manager resources, check out the Manager Essentials Collection within Mindarma’s Brain Food Platform.