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Our brand new study of what makes people unhappy at work has a number of interesting findings but none more relevant (or discouraging) than this one:

The #1 cause of unhappiness at work is bad bosses.

This is hardly news – we know this already from several other studies.

It’s partly about results

So why are bad bosses bad? Partly, there’s a sense that the boss is not there for employees work-wise, is always too busy with his own tasks to help them or simply has no insight or no interest in the work they do.

40% of respondents in our survey mentioned “A lack of help and support from my boss” as the cause of their most recent bad work day. 37% mention “Uncertainty about the workplace’s vision and strategy.”

One person wrote:

I love my actual job. It is rarely job specific tasks that make my days go bad. It is almost always frustration about having to work through hierarchy despite that fact that my boss is recognized as ineffective throughout the organization. (Just writing that made my day better!)

Another wrote:

“My boss suddenly started to instruct me on things that I’ve done for 15 years. Very annoying.”

When you lack support from the boss, it becomes unreasonably hard to do your job well and get good results. And getting great results that you can be proud of is a major source of happiness at work.

… But it’s also about relationships

35% of respondents name bad behaviour from bosses as one cause of unhappiness at work. One person wrote:

“My boss contributes to the bulk of the cause of everything else that is bad at work. We have a new director, and my job has not changed. Just bosses changed. I used to love my job. Now I hate it.”

Good workplace relationships and social support are crucial for our happiness at work and studies show that the most important workplace relationship is with the immediate manager.

When employees have a good relationship with the boss, they are much more likely to be happy at work. When they know that the boss sees them, respects them, trusts them and appreciates them personally and professionally.

On the other hand, when bosses show that they don’t care about their people, e.g. by being rude, disrespectful or simply by ignoring them, it is a clear sign of bad relationships and this makes employees miserable.

Crucially, this bad behaviour can come from both the immediate manager or from executives higher. One respondent wrote:

“I love my new boss, but the c-suite is clueless and mean.”

Another wrote:

“My VP is an HR nightmare. He constantly makes derogatory remarks about employees behind closed doors during meetings that I’m forced to attend.”

So it’s not enough to have good team managers, the whole company must have a good leadership culture and top executives who are highly visible inside the organization must be good leaders.

Dire consequences

The negative effects of bad bosses are profound. They are the #1 cause of bad work days which may seem trivial but which can really harm people at work and at home. Respondents wrote:

“This is the first position I have ever held where I actually hate my job. I never understood people who say ‘I hate my job!’ or who constantly complain about their work lives until this last year. Now I know what those people are talking about.”

“I don’t sleep well at night when I have a bad day at work because the anticipation and anxiety of the next day are always on my mind.”

Bad bosses are bad. Thank you, Captain Obvious. So what do we do about them?

Here are our top 5 suggestions.

1: Hire and train managers for happiness

On an organizational level, we can recognize that good management skills are not an inherent trait in most people. It’s something we can look for when we select people for management positions, and something we must systematically train bosses to do well.

The best way to do that is to realise that the best leaders have excellent relationship-building skills. They are excellent at understanding and relating to many different kinds of people – bad bosses relate only to people who are like themselves.

2: Never accept jerks in management

Most importantly: Never ever promote jerks to management positions. They’re incredibly toxic.

3: Listen to employees’ problems

Additionally, managers need to listen to employees and take them seriously when they see problems in the workplace. Bad bosses can’t take criticism and don’t care about any problems their employees face.

4: Stop bad managers

And crucially, we need to stop bad managers. Every workplace has them; bosses who should not be bosses because they lack the professional or personal skills to manage well. If bad bosses cannot learn to be good bosses, they need to stop being bosses altogether.

One company even lets all employees rate their managers twice a year and the resulting scores are published for the whole company to see, creating massive pressure on bad bosses to mend their ways.

5: Learn to recognize and deal with bad bosses

On an individual level, each of us can learn to recognise bad management when we see it and realise exactly just how badly it affects us professionally and personally.  And if you find yourself working for a bad manager with no desire or skill to improve their ways, the best (or even the only) solution may be to quit and go work somewhere else. 

Our Emotional Intelligence training day on the 7 April 2016 will help you to understand how to handle conflicts at work and improve your emotional intelligence. 


Alexander is the founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo inc and one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work. He is an author and speaker, presenting and conducting workshops on happiness at work at businesses and conferences in over 30 countries. His clients include companies like Hilton, Microsoft, LEGO, IKEA, Shell, HP and IBM.

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