Difficult bosses: lessons from film and TV

Managers who are still honing their people management skills can present an influencing challenge for their reports.

Fictional incompetent managers are often comedy gold. We laugh at them because we recognise bits of them in our bosses and sometimes in ourselves. Here are three of the most notorious bosses and some sage advice on how to cope if you encounter them in real life.

In the real world, it’s hard to find a boss who reaches the extremes of a fictional problem boss’ worst lows, but the suggested tips for coping are still valuable in everyday workplace situations.

1. David Brent – The insecure boss

The Wernham Hogg middle manager, as portrayed by Ricky Gervais in the BBC’s mockumentary The Office is such a bad boss he’s earned his own management moniker, “the David Brent effect” to characterise managers who think they are better than they are. 

An incompetent, fragile narcissist with the attention span of a house fly, Brent’s character best epitomises the insecure boss. 

He sets out his management agenda as follows: “I suppose I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first, a boss second. Probably an entertainer third.” 

A David Brent is often the product of promotion to a management position on the basis of technical knowledge or skills. 

Managers who are still honing their people management skills can present an influencing challenge for their reports, says leadership and performance consultant Tim Baker. 

“To do that well, you need to understand what type of boss you are dealing with. Are they linear, rational and structured? If so, then talk in that language. If they are value-based, then appeal to their values.” 

Each time you speak with your boss, take the opportunity to educate them about what you do, by providing details of your tasks and responsibilities. This will help them become more savvy about your role and your contribution and will, in turn, help you.

2. Ron Swanson - the disinterested boss

Mockumentaries breed the best bad bosses on television. In Parks and Recreation Ron Swanson, head of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks department is a libertarian who is deeply anti-government to the point of disinterest in his job and the people who work for him. 

To quote him is to know the type: “I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name. Best friend I ever had. We still never talk sometimes.”

Having a hands-off boss who just lets you get on with things may sound great in theory, but when the boss is “psychologically absent” can create a management vacuum, which is seen often in Parks and Recreation. 

Seeking feedback and mentorship from other sources would be a sensible option for Swanson’s reports at the Indiana Parks department. 

Dr Zivit Inbar, founder of DifferenThinking, points out the importance of feedback in career progression.

“Look for a mentor within or outside the organisation who does not need to know your boss, but is in a position of seniority. Hear their stories and receive feedback,” Inbar says.

And importantly even if your boss doesn’t seem to care, never undermine them. It’s important to keep them in the loop, even if they don’t acknowledge this.

3. Bill Lumbergh – the micromanager

The 1999 film Office Space features micromanager extraordinaire, Bill Lumbergh, played by Gary Cole. This divisional vice president of the fictional software firm Initech, has a fixation with TPS cover sheets, inundates his subordinates with pointless demands and drowns them in meaningless paperwork.

The key to working with a Lumbergh-type manager is reassurance. 

Ask them open-ended questions, such as: “I know we have to deliver this project well and on time. I can assure you that I am on top of it. When and how would you like me to share updates and concerns? Knowing this will help me organise my time better and focus on achieving our shared goals.” 

December/January 2022
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