There Are Only Two Kinds of Terrible Bosses

By
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC via Getty Images

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all good bosses are more or less alike, but every terrible boss is terrible in his or her own way. Maybe you’re stuck with a chronic micromanager, or an overly aggressive bully, or someone who’s just way too into the idea of mandatory fun, or some miserable combination of any number of other things.

If you zoom out from their uniquely terrible quirks and habits, though, some patterns begin to emerge. In a new paper titled Stress, Well-Being, and the Dark Side of Leadership, a team of organizational psychologists reviewed existing literature on management styles in an attempt to create a taxonomy of less-than-stellar supervisors. The one they came up with turned out to be pretty simple: All bad bosses, they argued, fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, there are the dysfunctional bosses; on the other, there are the dark ones.

Dysfunctional bosses, the authors explained, aren’t malicious — in fact, they can have their employees’ best interests at heart — but lack the competence to effectively do their jobs or manage their subordinates. Dark bosses, by contrast, are so called as a reference to the “dark triad” of personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These are the ones “who enjoy the pain and suffering of others — they’re going to be mean, abusive, and harassing in daily life,” co-author Seth Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, said in a statement. They’re also the ones who feel more comfortable ditching morals to get ahead, whether that means knowingly taking credit for someone else’s work or throwing them under the bus.

Both of these labels, the authors noted, are spectrums rather than black-and-white designations. A boss can sometimes be annoyingly bumbling while still usually managing to get things done; similarly, someone can be kind of a jerk while still having something resembling a conscience. But knowing which way yours leans can better equip you to deal with their awfulness: “A person’s direct supervisor is a lens through which they view their work experience,” Spain said, and if you can’t have one that makes the office a pleasant place to be, at least you can develop your own coping strategies. Even if you’re one of those poor suckers whose boss gives out neither compliments nor pizza.

There Are Only Two Kinds of Terrible Bosses