It’s official: Empty suits make the worst kind of bosses

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We have all had one and chances are they were the main reason why you quit a job at some point in your career. 

Yes, we are talking about lousy bosses who can make a great job miserable and a bad job truly unbearable. Beyond their negative impact on individual employees, dud bosses can fuel morale problems, accelerate staff turnover and purge workplace productivity.

Our workplaces are brimming with bad bosses who exist in more configurations than the shapes in a box of barbecue-flavoured crackers. There’s the boss who is missing in action, the master manipulator, the manager who always takes credit for their underlings’ achievements and that dreadfully annoying boss who flits around like a dizzy moth.

Some lack empathy while others fail to lead by example. Still others use team members as mere pawns for their own success. There is also the manager who is as slippery as an eel, the befriending type who tries to be everyone’s best mate, the micromanager who controls even the simplest of tasks, and the shockingly sooky boss who is more sensitive than a barometer.

Nothing sparks a more colourful discussion than asking employees to share their experience of working with an abysmal boss. Now, the findings of a major international research project involving 28,000 workers has thrown new light on the topic of second-rate bosses by revealing that the most common type of bad boss is not the one who fails to offer support or is disrespectful.

Instead, it is the boss who does not know how to do their job. In other words, the boss who doesn’t know how to be the boss. Increasingly called empty suits, these are bosses of all genders who look the part on the outside but there’s nothing or very little on the inside:  they are incompetent.

That should not surprise anyone. We are are flooding our workplaces with incompetent bosses by persisting in promoting people to management roles without due regard to the attributes required for management success.

While it might seem logical to choose the most talented salesperson to be the team’s new sales manager, that thinking is fundamentally flawed – the job of an individual sales professional is substantially different to that of leader of a team of salespeople.

The sales manager’s job might well require product knowledge along with sales skills. But as – if not more – importantly it will also demand an additional and substantially different set of skills to support the success of those in the team: the skills of management.

The new sales manager is unlikely to know how to be a good manager and might even lack the passion for leading others. In that case, the net result is likely to be that the workplace will lose an outstanding salesperson and gain a poor manager. And as painful as that sounds, it happens far too often in our workplaces and leaves new bosses to discover they are suddenly out of their depth and struggling to cope.

It is a fact that the best footballers don’t become the best coaches, the most talented lawyers do not necessarily make the most successful managing partners and even highly capable teachers do not automatically become the most effective school principals.

Alarmingly, too, once embedded in management bad bosses tend to remain in their roles despite their incompetence because mere incompetence is not enough cause to be fired. Invariably, only extreme managerial incompetence causes a bad boss to be dismissed.

Of course, there are likely to be plenty of exceptions in the modern workplace: you may well be one yourself or you might have witnessed first-hand a great technical operator who became a great boss.

At the same time, if you have a good look around your current workplace or reflect on some of your past places of employment, you will be able to pick out the people in your office who occupy the role of team leader, supervisor or manager and are totally out of their depth and comfort zone. 

The fact remains that the way most employees rise up the ranks to lead others is fundamentally flawed. Organisations must take urgent action to ensure they do not remain complicit in breeding successive batches of bad bosses. The fix is relatively straightforward.

We need workplaces to focus on assessing the characteristics of job candidates that are better predictors of managerial success, including experience in working with others, emotional intelligence and communications skills. And we must provide ongoing support, mentoring and training to those in newly appointed management roles. 

As obvious as that seems, the failure of many workplaces to take on these basic steps explains why so many of us have a bad boss story to share, and perhaps why others choose to work for themselves rather than being part of a poorly led team.

For those stuck in management roles that make them feel like a fish out of water despite the availability of perks, accept the sobering realisation that being the boss might not be worth the sheer burden it inflicts on you.


Professor Gary Martin is chief executive at the Australian Institute of Management WA.