He was a tyrant, a bully, and a curmudgeon. He stomped around a cubicle farm like a giant looking for villagers to pummel with his big fists, and he often found one or two willing to oblige. His name was Michael, and he was easily the worst boss I've ever had.
In a performance review, I'd sit down and Michael would read through a litany of mistakes and shortcomings. He barely said anything positive, even though my department at the time had grown steadily and we were in a hiring binge. His whole attitude permeated around the office and everyone was afraid of him. A typical meeting in his office consisted of a lot of squirming, a fair amount of confrontation, and a whole helping of unhappiness.
This was quite a few years ago now, but fortunately I only had this boss for about a year. He eventually moved to a different department. What I remember so distinctly about him is that his presence had a terribly negative effect on my team. Talk about sour faces. For that entire year, I vividly remember how everyone lived in fear--up until they quit. We just never knew when Michael might "make the rounds" and voice his disapproval.
Productivity plummeted during this time. I remember the project leads who reported directly to me at the time just had this look of panic, like they were not entirely sure if they would have a job in the coming months. It was all-consuming. The worst part is that it was having a snowball effect. The anger created a feeling of resentment, which made my boss even angrier because people were not getting as much work done. Even worse, he barely understood our area of expertise. He was shooting blind.
I like to compare that experience to the boss I had for several years before Michael took over. His name was Scott. He had a chill attitude about everything. Meetings usually involved quite a bit of debate about the best places to play golf in the Twin Cities. He had pictures on his wall of recent hunting expeditions up to the Great North of Minnesota. We compared notes.
"How is your team doing?" he'd ask.
"Great, we scored another big project..." I'd say.
"Cool, see you next week."
Scott had an upbeat attitude. Nothing fazed him. His approach to work (and life) was to view me and my team (about 40-50 people including contractors) as top performers. If he had a gripe, it was a usually a quick aside at the end of our chats, just after spending most of the time discussing hunting gear. My performance reviews lasted about 10 minutes and ended with me getting a raise. My team felt motivated, excited, and eager to get work done. They stayed late working on projects, and would "sell" our services to anyone who would listen. They loved being at work and they loved working.
Keep in mind that Scott was actually a numbers guy. He wasn't laid-back and he wasn't casual. Behind the scenes, he was tracking every project in detail. He had worked as a consultant at one of the most prestigious firms in Minneapolis and was incredibly smart. It was just that he knew how to be a leader. He knew that his happy-go-lucky attitude and unfazed demeanor created a sense of well-being in the office.
It worked. Scott's attitude filtered down to me, and then to the rest of the team.
Sadly, this story has a rather bleak ending, in a way. After Scott left and Michael took over, roughly around the year 2000, my attitude about corporate work started to plummet. I lost quite a bit of steam and we rarely acquired any new projects. I was in a tailspin emotionally. I had lost most of my motivation. Within about a year, I was out the door.
As I've mentioned many times, the upside is that I started a writing career that has lasted 14 years. Yet, we tend to remember the most recent experience of any job. What I remember was Michael the curmudgeon not Scott the energizer. And, when I see leaders in business today, I often think about whether they remind me of Michael or Scott.
So which one are you? Which attitude have you adopted?