How many bosses have you had so far in your career?
It might take a few minutes for you to remember them all. For me, I think about 30 in the 20 years since my very first job. Even if I was at the same company for multiple years, I didn’t always have the same boss the whole time, or even had multiple bosses at the same time.
Who stands out to you in your career?
Typically, we remember the bosses we liked the most and the bosses we…let’s say, liked the least. The ones who brought out the best in us and the ones who made us cringe. The thing is, though, there aren’t just these two types of bosses. It isn’t just a wonderful leader versus a toxic boss.
Side note, I think the term toxic gets thrown around too easily when speaking about companies and bosses. Just because your boss doesn’t always give you what you want, it doesn’t make them toxic. Read on for details on toxic bosses.
Bosses fall on a spectrum.
A spectrum is defined as a broad range of varied but related ideas or objects, the individual features of which tend to overlap so as to form a continuous series or sequence. If you want to advance your career you need to know how to navigate the Boss Spectrum.
When I look back at the 30 bosses I’ve had, there are 5 major categories on the spectrum they fall into, from the absolutely amazing to the worst I’ve ever seen.
1. The Best Boss
We all want this boss! This is the boss that actively helps with your professional development and career advancement. They know what they’re doing when it comes to leadership and they have the authority to make decisions. They provide constructive and timely feedback for improvement.
Sadly, these bosses are rare. Not quite a unicorn but these days it’s getting close. Since these bosses are so rare, there are two things to keep in mind when dealing with The Best Boss.
One, don’t get attached. These bosses are so awesome that the likelihood they’ll stay in one place in their career is slim.
Two, respect their time. Everyone is going to want time with the awesome boss so that means when you get time with them you need to use it wisely. Be prepared, be on time, be ready.
Don’t expect this boss to do all the heavy lifting for you either. If they don’t feel like you’re taking initiative or putting in the effort to match their effort, then you might get bumped for another colleague that is.
I can count on one hand the Best Bosses that I’ve had. I truly hope you get an opportunity to work with some but I wouldn’t continue to job hop hoping to find one. Like I said, they’re rare and they might not be there for long if they have other advancement opportunities of their own.
2. The Means Well Boss
This is the boss that does truly want to help you but just doesn’t know how to do that. It’s possible that they’re new to the company, don’t have the authority to make advancement decisions (yet), or are just new to managing altogether. They may cause frustration because their expectations aren’t crystal clear, they still need to work on their communication skills, and may not be consistent with your development.
To work with this type of boss you will definitely need to speak up for yourself more. Make sure you’re discussing your goals and skills and asking for feedback. You also want to confirm that your boss is advocating for you behind closed doors, or is helping you get in front of the decision makers.
3. The Likable Boss
Here’s a category where it starts to get more challenging. You genuinely really like this boss as a person. They’re kind, fun, smart, talented or all of the above. The difficulty is that even though you might like them, they haven’t helped you get a raise, promotion, or any advancement opportunities. It isn’t out of malice, like I said – this boss is likable – but there is something going on that is keeping you from advancing.
The challenging part is figuring out WHY you’re not advancing when your boss seemingly likes you, and you her.
Maybe there aren’t advancement opportunities that align with your goals, but they don’t want to lose you as an employee. Maybe they’re not good at giving direct and actionable feedback because they don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. Maybe they got promoted because they’re really good at task-based production but not a clue or desire to learn how to be a leader – it has nothing to do with you – they have their own goals.
Once you figure out the reason, then you can best proceed. In general, you’re best served by being very specific with your requests for opportunities and advancement. Continue to talk to them about your goals, and make sure they know your role is backfilled so that when an opportunity presents itself they won’t be afraid to let you go.
4. The Absent Boss
This boss can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you like that they leave you alone, give you autonomy and freedom. On the other hand you can’t get them when you need to, you hardly get feedback or recognition because they’re never around or don’t know details of what you’re doing. Scheduling meetings is definitely a challenge.
In my experience, you see this type of boss more often higher up the career ladder. When you’re an Executive they expect you to be able to do things on your own and not need as much development or attention as you may have earlier in your career. This isn’t true of course.
The Absent Boss is also what you see pretty much any time your boss is the owner of the company (regardless of what position you’re in – even as their Executive Assistant!).
The best way to work with this type of boss is to seek mentorship and development from other sources. You can’t neglect your professional development just because they do. You should also work to make yourself visible to others within the company so that you create advocates. Finally, figure out the Absent Boss’s communication style and adapt to their preferences.
5. The Toxic Boss
What makes a boss truly toxic? It isn’t just that you can’t get your way, they denied your PTO request, or they demonstrate obvious favoritism. What makes a boss truly toxic is their intent. There are some human beings out there that not only don’t care about others, but go out of their way to make others feel bad or less than. When these toxic people become bosses it includes but is not limited to: demeaning you in a public setting, making you uncomfortable with their personal information or trying to get you to share your personal information, talking about you behind your back, lying, using any discriminatory language, and purposefully holding you back in your career.
Now, I know you must be thinking, ‘how could a boss like this even exist?’
The truth is that if toxic bosses didn’t get results then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Depending on their other talents and the priorities of the company, this toxic boss might be successful, so their flaws are often overlooked. I find this is especially true in heavy sales environments. If you’re bringing in the bacon you tend to get away with more than the average boss. If your toxic boss is the owner, then you have to figure out if it’s worth staying in the company.
So what should you do?
Well the same way I told you not to job-hop to find the Best Boss you want to be careful of job hopping to avoid toxic bosses. The only caveat to that is if it is a toxic company and/or this person is making you miserable to where it is impacting your personal life or well-being. If so, get out immediately!!
With that being said, here’s how you deal with a Toxic Boss.
For one, you have to be very careful about the things you say and share. Your communication skills and EQ need to be on point. Make sure you always CYA in email and have someone present for in-person convos if necessary. Talk to HR or their boss if you feel it will help.
The goal with understanding the different types of bosses is to try and move your boss up the spectrum FOR YOU! Yes, everyone doesn’t look at the boss the same way as you do. Haven’t you ever discussed a boss you liked with a co-worker and were surprised to hear they had a different opinion or experience?
For example, an Absent Boss to you might be a great boss to another if they’re able to connect with them often enough. You might see this happen when you have staff working remotely or at different job sites.
The idea is that if you use the techniques I shared you can help build better relationships with your bosses and help yourself advance. Realistically, a Toxic Boss is likely never going to be the Best Boss without some severe therapy and self-improvement, which is not your responsibility.
However, I have successfully moved a Toxic Boss/owner to an Absent Boss/owner in my career. (Yes, this is true! If you want to hear how I did it leave a comment below). As an Absent Boss that was enough of a win for me, and others, to just not have to deal with him in the office and then find other mentors for development.
What type of boss are you going to be?
If you continue to advance you will also be a boss one day! Whether that is managing a team of 1 or 100; whether that is a remote or global team; whether that is you starting your own business; or even a solopreneur being the boss of yourself. You could be the boss of a process, of vendors, contractors, and 3rd parties.
Think about the bosses you’ve had and the ones highest on the Boss Spectrum. Then go out and be The Best Boss for someone else!