January 21, 2009, 4:46 PM — I've spent a lot of years of working under a variety of bosses, some good, some awful, some ok and some incredible. As a Unix systems administrator with more than 25 years of experience, I don't need to be told how to do my job, but I still depend on my boss in so many ways that my relationship with my boss is a large factor in how I rate my job. I'm not particular about many aspects of my job. I can work for a large company or a small one, an IT firm or one that uses IT to accomplish some non-IT function. I am, however, picky (when I have that option, anyway) about the bosses I'm willing to work under. In fact, I only see two types of bosses worth having. I call them the Mentor and the Provider.
The Mentor is the kind of boss who, even though I may have as much or more experience in the field, is able to teach me better ways of working, help me organize my workload in ways that allow me to be more effective or fill in important gaps in my working knowledge of Unix and related topics. The Mentor is a natural leader, has a low stress work style, has the proper skills for working well with upper management, looks out for my career and knowingly nudges me in directions that will be both career enhancing and personally rewarding.
The Mentor doesn't ask me to do work he wouldn't do just because he's the boss. He doesn't assign me tasks that are a stupid waste of my time without allowing me at least an option of finding smarter ways to get the required work done. He expects a lot of feedback and expects our relationship to be one that works well for both of us.
The Provider is the kind of boss who, whether or not she has the technical prowess to handle any portion of the work that I do or even understand it, has confidence in my ability to get the job done and is able to provide the resources I need. He ensures that I have enough autonomy to make decisions as to what works best, gives me proper credit when interacting with upper management and generally stays out of the way and lets me work.
The Provider knows how to present a case to upper management to acquire the resources I need to do my job well. Whether it's special training, a new file server, a hardware service agreement or a bag of tools, she will make sure that I get what I need and trusts my judgment to determine what my needs are.
The style of boss that a Unix sysadmin has will often depend on the size and nature of the organization. A large organization is likely to have more providers than mentors, but a smaller organization are more likely to have bosses that are actually willing to listen to your ideas.
While the roles I imagine for good bosses are limited, those I've seen and experienced for bad bosses run the gamut from demanding and critical to neglectful and incompetent. You can love your work and yet hate your job simply because of the way your boss treats or controls you.
The worst boss I ever had barked orders from time to time and otherwise never spoke to me. He talked in acronymns that I swear he made up on the fly just to make himself feel as if he understood more than I did. At the same time, he spoke to upper management as if he were nearly a one man team, completely responsible for any work that we accomplished. To make matters worse, he never showed any interest in whether I liked my work, had any professional ambitions or any ideas about how we could work more efficiently or provide better service.
The best boss I ever had dealt with me largely as if we were equals. He discussed projects with me and expected me to have ideas about how they could best be accomplished. His suggestions on how to get work done were always offered with an option to disagree. In fact, he expected discussion and counted on me to participate in planning what we did and how. He never asked me to do work he wasn't also willing to do. If there were mundane, tedious tasks to be done (and aren't there always?), he'd talk to me about them. More often than not, I was happy to do whatever work was required, but just knowing that I had options left me feeling as if I were respected and valued.
Having a bad boss doesn't only mean that you have little control over how you do your work. It's easy to pick up negativity from a boss. In any hierarchical organization, feelings flow predominantly downhill. Your dependence on your boss is unavoidable, especially in those organizations which make it difficult to go over your boss' head. Your relationship with the rest of the organization may depend completely on how your boss handles his relationships with the rest of the company and how he represents your work.
A bad boss doesn't necessarily have to be mean or even inconsiderate. Some of the worst bosses I've had have been likable people. They were just incapable of providing resources or direction. They occupied the "seat" without providing any benefit that I could decipher.
Your boss can be kind but inept, incapable of playing the role of mentor or provider. Since your boss likely earns one and a half to twice what you do, he has probably found a way to elevate his sense of self-importance to justify this income. In other words, he may be incapable or recognizing what a bad boss he really is! Many bosses are completely unaware of how badly they treat the people that work for them or how little they do to help them be happy or do good work.
Being dependent on a boss who just isn't any good at either leading the way or providing the resources you need to do a good job can leave you feeling discouraged and ineffective if not frustrated and angry.
The best bosses inspire confidence, are humble, encourage excellence, have strong integrity, can be trusted, know their stuff (whether the technology you work with or how to get things done at the particular company) and know their staff (they are well aware of your skills and how to put them to good use).
The worst will ask you to justify everything you want to do, will only show enough interest in your work to take credit for it or to write their weekly reports and are never available when you need something.
What you should do when stuck with a bad boss is a difficult question. The answer depends a lot on whether you have any control and whether your boss is open to criticism. If your boss is a micro-manager, can you explain how having little control over your work robs you of opportunities to demonstrate your skill and make decisions that improve the process? Does the boss' inability to give you control mean that he lacks confidence in you or that he has too little to do? If your boss is bad at procuring resources, can you arm him with arguments so that he's better at asking for what you need? If your boss is critical, can you get her to understand why you respond to tasks the way you do? Maybe she doesn't understand the competing demands that you are working under.
In a bad economy, ditching a job -- even a bad one -- can be a drastic move. An October Gallup Poll concludes that 82% of Americans think that this is a bad time to be looking for that quality job. Maybe bad boss or not, this is a season for making the best out of what you have.
If you're stuck with an inept boss and want to blow off some steam about it, check out http://www.mystupidboss.com. You'll probably find that your bad boss isn't the worst one around and maybe a good laugh will put you in a better mood.
In any case, you should understand that being stuck with a bad boss is a serious problem -- not just for you, but for all the companies that employ them. A fairly recent Gallup poll concluded that bad relationships with bosses is the number one reason that people quit their jobs. The Gallup Poll also estimates that US corporations lose as much as 360 billion dollars annually due to lost productivity from employees who are dissatisfied with -- yes, I'm sure you guessed it -- their bosses! This is a staggering figure, suggesting that having bosses periodically evaluated by their staff would not be such a bad idea. Productivity can take a nosedive, good workers can chase after different (not necessarily even better) jobs and institutional knowledge can slip out the back door simply because bad bosses make their workers' days miserable. Maybe someone other than another boss should take a good hard look at what it takes to keep employees looking forward to a day at work.