Horrible Boss? Kill Them With Kindness...or More Specifically, Positive Reinforcement!

With all of the hype surrounding the new movie release “Horrible Bosses,” it forces those of us that have had a horrible boss in the past to relive our own experiences. In an article I read this week on the topic, How to handle a bad boss (without killing them), a few anonymous people spoke up about their own dreadful experiences.

I was surprised, although knowing what I know about positive reinforcement I’m not sure why, that in each example, they put up with the bad boss behavior rather than do something to combat it.  I realize it’s normal to have ‘fantasies’ of bad bosses getting their just desserts but why not do what you can to redirect bad boss behavior? Unfortunately most executives, looking only at results, don’t see the organizational costs of bad boss behavior. 

You certainly don’t get discretionary behavior but you almost always get reduced personal output that spreads to other employees not directly affected by the “bad boss”.  It is not infrequent that employees resort to some form of sabotage. Just as your boss changes your behavior (attitude, motivation, etc.) you also change hers.  Although most people don’t realize the impact their behavior has on the boss, it can be significant and can turn a bad boss into a good one.   The problem is that most employees do not see it as their responsibility to train the boss.  However, if your life is made miserable by living with a boss 40 hours a week, it will benefit you to take on the task.

It bears repeating, as I say this quite often, that if you think that you get too little recognition or positive reinforcement for what you do at work; think of your boss because he/she gets less. Before you act (if even just in fantasy) on ousting your boss, try any or all of the following.  Knowing what I know about the science of behavior and positive reinforcement, your work environment, and your relationship with your boss, is bound to improve.

  1. Look for some improvement on the part of the boss. Don’t look for large changes, but for any small behavior that is an improvement over the usual.   Tell him or her that you appreciate how they handled something at work or a decision that they made. Find something to positively recognize your boss for not only today, but next week and even next month.  Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to change any one’s behavior, even the boss.
  2. Say ‘Thank You’ to your boss. Thanking your boss for something that he or she has done that is helpful to you in some way is always appreciated by the boss. Bosses usually only get the bad news about things people don’t like; it’s rare that they hear about things they do that people actually like.
  3. Tell your boss what’s going on. Keep the boss informed about things that ARE going well.  Bosses usually only get the bad news about things that aren’t going well. Give them a reason to celebrate what is working.
  4. Help your boss be successful. Respond positively to initiatives, priorities and decisions set forth by your boss (assuming, of course, that you think they are good). Any time you help your boss be successful, his or her behavior will likely improve.
  5. Help others on your team. Go out of your way to help others who are working to implement and address the boss’s initiatives and priorities. This causes most bosses these days to relax as they are able to see that the total burden of creating results does not fall on their shoulders.

A little positive reinforcement goes a long way to improving bad boss behavior. All people need positive reinforcement to do their best – bosses included. You have the ability to strengthen your boss’s good habits and improve other behaviors by how you respond to the boss’s behavior. Positive reinforcement will do the trick. Learn as much about it as you can.  Doing it at the wrong time, in the wrong way or the wrong place will make things worse, but if you do it right and do it often, you and your boss will be the better for it.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.