Why It’s Dangerous to Love Your Boss

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Bad bosses drive us nuts. Great bosses, on the other hand, are, well…great! They treat us with respect, develop our skills, and help us achieve our goals. They’ve got a sense of humor and know how to cheer us up. They inspire us and help us refocus when things go wrong. They’re fun to hang out with. It’s rare to have a boss you can look up to. Rarer still to have one you can really idolize.

In my research on leadership, I spend a lot of time trying to define what excellent leadership actually is (think emotional intelligence). I also try very hard to help people become resonant leaders — the kind who build good teams, achieve goals, act with integrity and ethics, and care about people, too. These are the kinds of leaders we all want and they’re also few and far between. So, what could possibly go wrong when you’ve got that rare great boss?

Actually, quite a lot can go wrong when you love your boss. And no, I don’t mean that kind of love (which is an even bigger problem). I mean the kind that puts your boss on a pedestal, keeps your rose-colored glasses firmly in place, and looks an awful lot like adulation.

Idolizing your boss is a really bad idea. Here’s why:

First, this kind of relationship is often charged with strong emotions. And strong emotions, both good and bad, can cloud our judgment. When in the grip of powerful feelings, we don’t see ourselves, others, or situations clearly. This is because cognition and reasoning can be hijacked by emotions, even positive ones, leaving us intellectually handicapped. We don’t see the boss clearly, so we allow him to make stupid mistakes and we stand by passively. We may even cover up his mistakes. Who does this serve? Not you, certainly. Not your team or the organization. And ultimately you’re not helping your boss, either.

Idolizing one’s boss feels good to your boss, too, and she will likewise be intellectually compromised when caught in a web of constant positive regard. Bosses in this situation are at risk of becoming delusional and believing the hype about themselves. At the very least, many of these leaders focus far too much on making sure you still like them — I have seen way too many leaders do just about anything to get people to like (even love) them. That isn’t good for business, and it isn’t safe. If the goal is for people to like you, how are you ever going to have tough conversations? Or give feedback? Or let them go?

Second, when a manager and employee are in this kind of relationship, others are usually left out. It looks like favoritism, and it usually is. When you and your boss are a dysfunctional pair, people get mad. They team up. They try to figure out how to knock you off your pedestal. It often works. Then, you may discover the flip side of favoritism — scapegoating. If your boss plays favorites, chances are he also will distance himself from you — or even blame you — when problems arise. And problems will always arise. The saddest part about this dynamic is that it’s really common. And when you get knocked down, your delusional boss will often find another acolyte and the whole unfortunate cycle starts all over again.

Third — and to me most important of all — idolizing a powerful person is downright dangerous. I recently met with the dedicated leadership team at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The outstanding historians and educators at the museum have created a powerful experience that shows the insidious slide into hell that can happen over time when leaders are adored and are seen to do no wrong.

We’ve seen this dynamic play out in dictatorships all over the world. True, it’s a long way from the world stage to your workplace but the underlying human dynamics are not that different. When we find ourselves in a situation where we are allowing our boss to slide, or when we compromise our personal ethics “just a bit” for our beloved bosses, we are heading for trouble.

So…love your boss? Fine. Just keep your eyes open.

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