4 Things We Learned From Our “Worst Boss” Survey

Dustin Moody

Bad bosses can lead to high turnover, lack of employee morale, and office conflict. Many of us have had unfortunate experiences with bosses and leaders who failed to bring out our best and created cultures where thriving in the workplace was nearly impossible. But what makes a bad boss bad? Are their common traits we can identify? And how can those bosses change (assuming they want to)?

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we strive to make creating good work, embracing relationships, and serving sacrificially part of our DNA. We hope these aspirational goals influence the work we do and the ways we do it with colleagues. So we began wondering how these values were reflected (or not) in bosses and leaders.

For #NationalBossDay, we created a survey to find out more about our best and worst bosses, and our survey participants were generous with their feedback. We started unpacking the results by sharing a few of the more outrageous bad boss stories. Now we’ll take a look at four things we learned about good and bad bosses.

1. Bad bosses are (probably) condescending.

Out of more than 20 choices, more than half of survey respondents stated that their worst boss was condescending (56%). In fact, “condescension” was actually the only trait among 40 others describing good and bad bosses identified by a majority of respondents. While bad bosses are also critical (40%), dishonest (38%), ignorant (37%), and unreliable (32%), no other descriptor was so clearly associated with bad bosses as being condescending.

Solution: While you may not know that you’re coming across as condescending, it’s helpful to consider whether your words and actions inadvertently diminish others. Do you follow colleagues stories with tales of your own? Are your compliments more backhanded than direct? If you’re truly unsure, the best way to find out is to ask those around you. If the people closest to you identify a few ways you may be condescending, ask them to bring these instances to light in normal conversation, then work to change your communication patterns. To start, actively listen to your colleagues, share credit as much as possible, and ask more questions.

2. Good bosses see the forest; bad bosses see the trees.

Bad bosses tend to be myopic, with more than half of survey respondents indicating that bad bosses “always” focus on one particular goal, like profitability or pleasing upper management, at the expense of other goals, tasks, or employee morale (54%). Good bosses do the opposite: 83% of participants indicated that good bosses “always” maintain a broad view of organizational goals, tasks, and employee morale.

Solution: Take stock of your task list, your calendar, and your conversations. Is there one recurring theme you seem to be drawn to? Or does your day and you work cover the breadth of organizational life, or at least the slice you’re responsible for? Your team likely has a range of concerns and activities at any one time, so make sure you know (and care!) about all of these.

3. Communication skills are the clearest separator between good and bad bosses.

Communication is the single trait survey respondents said that bad bosses need to address for personal and professional development (55%), beating out job competency (21%) and time management (3%). Interestingly, communication was also identified as the most common denominator among good bosses (59%).

Solution: While we can always benefit by working on our communication skills, this trait is critically important for bosses and organizational leaders. Find a way to solicit feedback from your colleagues and subordinates about your communication skills and identify gaps where you could improve, then create an ongoing plan to develop those areas. Your team will thank you.

4. Good bosses bring more to their work than job competency.

While this may be obvious, it’s important to remember that a good leader brings more to their work than their job competency. While survey respondents indicated job knowledge is the most common trait among good bosses (43%), it was essentially tied with being hardworking (42%) and honest (42%). Rounding out the top five characteristics, good bosses are also respectful and decisive.

Solution: When considering individuals for potential leadership roles, find ways to learn about their character as well as their skills. Avoid the temptation to elevate an employee to a management position simply because they do their job well. Leading others requires a broad set of competencies.

What questions does this generate for you about good and bad bosses? Send us a tweet or a Facebook post with #WorstBoss and your questions, and we’ll include them in future posts about our survey findings.

We’ve only scratched the surface of our survey findings, and we look forward to sharing more details with you over the next several weeks!

Editor’s note: We asked survey respondents to share stories about their worst boss. A few of them were so great (or terrible) that we decided to award a few Worst Boss superlatives.


Dustin Moody

Dustin previously served as the director of communications for Denver Institute of Faith & Work, with prior communications and marketing experience at the University of Colorado Boulder and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida. He and his family attend Storyline Church in Arvada.