Me, bad boss


A dubious privilege of being a business writer is that people talk to me. People who do the work talk to me. Their bosses talk to me. I get to hear both sides of the story, which is fascinating and, sometimes, gets you down. Humans easily give in to motivated thinking: seeing the world according to one’s own intent. The butcher thinks about meat, the lamb about the knife.

Darth ConsultantBosses, in particular, tell you all’s well even though results are bad (passing hiccup, tough environment), tell you about their plans to forge ahead and about how employees are so resistant to any change. Employees tell you that they don’t get the overall strategy, their manager is driving them crazy micromanaging them, they’re being second-guessed on any initiative, and they feel work has become so meaningless they’d work elsewhere if they could. And you think, uh, guys, talk to each other? But of course, they can’t.

I’ve always wondered: how come bosses don’t realize? How come they can’t see they are creating the very conditions of their failure (and spending a lot of energy selling the failure as a success)? Surely, they should see the impact of what they do? Shouldn’t they?

Then it dawned on me it was easy to come all high and mighty as I don’t manage anybody and never will. Or don’t I?

Without having a title on a business card, we all manage stuff. Projects, activities. For instance, I manage book production, from writing it, to getting into print, to getting the word out. I’m also co-founder of several organizations. I have no desire to manage, but still, I can’t escape the fact that as a founder you always have a special role. The teams I lead don’t exist in any organizational structure, but I still manage them, no matter how reluctantly, or incompetently.

And of course, I don’t realize I’m a bad boss.

So, I’ve been asking around: what makes me a bad boss?

Sadly, there are myriad ways of being a bad boss. From what I’ve seen that others do (and that I don’t see that I do when I screw up) I’ve come up with a shortlist:

  • Lose track of the mission
  •  Fix issues before fixing the team
  • Change the process before solving problems
  • Ask people to do stuff without training
  • Give rash feedback
  •  Reward the wrong metrics
  • Not take enough breaks


Losing track of the mission happens so easily. We start out doing things for a reason, usually for someone – a customer, a partner, someone. Then we lay out a path to an outcome, and we define the outputs needed at each step. So far so good. There is a goal, there is a path to this goal, there are planned steps. And then we start looking at the finger rather than the moon it points at, and obsess over the steps, not the goal.

All sorts of things happen at each concrete step. People resist the plan, new unexpected opportunities occur and very soon, you get so involved with getting the step right that you forget the goal, the overall mission: why are we doing this for whom? What was the problem we were trying to solve in the first place?

For instance, with our nonprofit lean institute, the mission is to research lean thinking and spread the word. To do so, we need funding and to do actual action research projects with companies in the real world – to prove it works. Companies will see this as consulting assignments, and why not? But the mission remains to publish learnings and formulate knowledge – companies usually don’t like this much. They, understandably, feel proprietary about any competitive information pertaining to them.

One of our early mistakes was mission creep: what became important was selling projects. Sure, we could justify the link to the research mission, but it became increasingly tenuous. And as the cost base to deliver on the projects increase, the funding issue wasn’t getting solved either (in the end we ended up with a huge loss).

The political battle to get back to the mission was so tough the President of the time had to leave. We refocused on a different output: spotting lean leaders and offering them a platform to talk about what they do. This is much closer to the mission, but now there is mission creep again – we are so focused on attracting lean leaders we risk lowering standards about what lean really means, and so create our next slide-back. And so on.

In the end, I don’t know any other way than constantly articulating the mission – “what are we doing, for who’s benefit?” – and questioning how we go about it and remain flexible as people and circumstances change. But I can see how easy it is to be increasingly rigid on means, and forget goals – everyone else notices, but not you.


When presented with a problem, it feels natural to solve it in your mind, then go to each member of your team and tell them what you want of them. And then be surprised when they have a different opinion, or do something else – or, more often, do nothing. Then you tell them harder.

Your team is not the people to report to you. The team is the people you need to succeed at an activity or project – wherever they are. Ocean’s eleven, the seven samurai, the magnificent seven, the A-team, you name it. A real team is made of positive, capable and – more importantly – autonomous people working together towards the same goal. When something is not working, fix the team first, and let the team solve the problem.

Teamwork is built through two-by-two cooperation. Being a better team leader means having regular conversations to discuss goals, priorities and plans and listening to what others intend to do: what, how, why. The trick to getting things your way is steadily articulate your vision and maintain skillful pressure – adapting to what others have in mind whilst keeping moving in the same direction, towards the same goals.

Issues all occur within relationships. By looking at the relationship first, we can try to avoid the worse mistake of telling someone “do this for me.” This triggers the “low road” of basic defensiveness and leads to resistance and resentment.

Engaging people in goals, in achieving their priorities as well and looking for smart ways to do things together, listening to how they’d do it, debating and finding workable compromises triggers the high-road of the frontal cortex: no one resists a puzzle, and when all energies align situations get resolved.

Who is on the bus matters disproportionately to outcomes. Surrounding oneself with the right people, or, more to the point, recognizing who to surround yourself with is the number one key to success. Yet, too often, we accept that the team is the “team” as given by the situation and the organization which we then need to manage, not the people we need to lead – wherever and whoever they are – in order to get the job done. Fix the team, let it fix the problems, support team members where you can.


I have to plead guilty on this one. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book on Business Process Re-engineering, contributing to the idea that there’s never anything wrong with staff, only wrong processes. We all know the argument: eve the best people will perform badly in a broken process, so fix the process first.

It’s nonsense of course. Processes are what people do. Competent people come up with good processes as they coordinate with each other. Incompetent people have no idea what a good process is. Worse, the Dunning-Kruger effect shows that people mistakenly assess their abilities as greater than they are. As a result, the least skilled people in an area tend to overestimate their own abilities mostly because they don’t understand what expert performance really looks like. This is why we’re all so confident about our opinions on fields we know nothing about.

Before fixing any process, check that the people with the “fix it” ideas are deeply competent about it, and yes, admit that really competent people can look weird. Competence reveals itself as track record, of course. But true experts tend to be difficult to follow because they mix details and strategy without marking the difference: that’s how the world looks to them. It makes them really bad at writing processes as they only see singular cases and special circumstances, and of course, they are right.

In our institute, all activities are managed through Kanban. Each activity has a Kanban-leader who maintains the heijunka board and pulls the Kanban, but who’s real role is to build in quality in what we do. This means checking up on who does what and giving quality feedback and input.

Some of our Kanban leaders are a bit green, and the people they talk to don’t necessary accept their advice (everyone is voluntary, there is no hierarchy). Not surprisingly, they second guess them by asking me or someone senior whether they should really take this person’s input (after complaining about the person, the waste of time, the usual). I’ve made the mistake in the past to go to the Kanban leader and say “pass all the plans through me first.” In order to alleviate the problem – I’m creating an additional control step in the process. Having done that no one will ever learn.

Solve the problems in the existing process before changing the process. By working with Kanban leaders to solve the problems – and directing people who go to me with complaints to work it out with their Kanban leaders, we can then recognize where/how we should change the process, and we end up with completely different changes and much better outcomes.

My father’s shop floor rule for buying a new machine was “achieve 10% more productivity with the existing machine, and then tell we why you need extra capacity.” It never failed. They sometimes did buy new equipment, but never what they first had in mind. By solving immediate problems, you get to really understand the process in depth – and know where to change.


“Can you do this?” has to be the dumbest question we ask as a boss. Of course they’ll answer “yes.” Or not answer at all. What are they going to say? To be fair, management practice has evolved from “get it done, I don’t care how” to manager-as-coach. But to be coachable, people still need a working basis of skill and knowledge.

In the lean world, there are endless debates to know whether we should talk about PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act), SDCA (Follow the standard-Do-Check-Act), DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control), or my personal favorite GBAWABL (Go-Back-And-Watch-A-Bit-Longer), but when you read Dr. Ishikawa, one of the early promoters of the PDCA, he suggests the following steps (my emphasis):

Determine goals and targets

Determine methods of reaching goals

Engage in education and training

Implement work

Check the effects of implementation

Take appropriate action

I can’t count the times when I’ve asked someone to do something they don’t know how to do (so much so that they don’t know what it would mean to do it well). When looking at someone to get a task done, we tend to think in terms of will and skill. What we also know that it’s hard to tell one from the other. When things aren’t moving, we think people are not trying hard enough, don’t have the will, when in truth they don’t have the skill and don’t know where to start. And vice versa in many cases we think they don’t have the skill when in fact they perfectly know how but have no intention of doing anything.

Teaching is in fact much harder than coaching – largely because the other person has to accept the need to be taught and the authority of the teacher.

Still, not starting with teaching is a costly mistake whenever we’re looking into something new. Reading a book is a perfect foot in the door, it works as an introduction for those who need training and as a way to self-reflect for those who need coaching. In any case, skill is always the root issue of work difficulties.


Feedback is a headache. Nobody wants feedback, everyone craves validation. The irony, of course, is that we all progress from negative feedback. We call it constructive when we like the person and toxic when we don’t (or when we get bruised egos), but criticism is criticism. Never nice, always necessary.

“Problems first”, and sincere communication are the foundations of a lean culture, and it makes sense. People have to feel safe in sharing unfavorable information – this is the source of all progress. Yet, egos are easily bruised and when that happens, people stop listening.

Feedback is useful when it’s specific and actionable. Yet, because it is so awkward to give, a hole I always dig myself into, is that it’s easier to express feedback in terms of traits than actual behavior: “you’re such a …, you’re too much of… you’re not enough of…” It makes perfect sense to you, but not to the person hearing it – they simply don’t see themselves that way.

The standard for giving feedback is to first listen and made the person feel heard (often hard when you’re stressed, upset, or in a hurry), then broach a situation (“last time you were making a point”), narrow down to a specific behavior (“they’d said yes but you kept on convincing them”) and its impact (“you lost their attention and they saw you as a bore”) – and see, traits creep in, no matter how hard you try.

The more annoyed you are with the person, the nastier it’s going to come. Brutal feedback might be occasionally necessary but is often very costly relationship-wise, and this brings us back to fix the team first: how do you create an atmosphere where sincere feedback is ok and people are tolerant of clumsy formulations.

The safest thing with giving feedback is to check yourself first and question your motives. Dressing down someone because you’re pissed at them is not feedback – it’s yelling at them. To be effective, feedback has to be prepared – the person must be ready to hear it – which usually requires a lot of listening first – and then be specific. And you’ve got to be able to deal with the ego defense reaction and not hold it against them. If they don’t simmer down and stay all huff after a long time, then you’ve a serious problem, and it’s back to the mission and fix the team.

Knowledge workers gravitate to bosses who can teach them something, who can solve the problems they don’t want to deal with, who are easy to talk to and fair in tie-breaking, it’s as simple as that. Giving feedback is a critical part of each, and we all just need to accept that we have to learn to get better at it.


Rewarding the wrong metrics is a trap so easy to fall into. When we first started out institute we felt that our influence would show in the number of projects we’d lead in companies – training or consulting. Then the metric became the number of large projects we could sell. And then we started losing money hand over fist because the larger the training or consulting project, the harder costs are to control. We ended up coordinating trainers across the world running a huge lean training program for a French multinational, and of course giving discounts to purchasing while paying full price to independent contractors. We lost our shirt on it, had invoices coming in years after we’d stopped the program and it took us literally years to climb out of the hole we’d dug for ourselves.

Now we’re tracking the number of people registered to our newsletter – but who reads e-mail newsletters anymore? Meanwhile, the number of people subscribing to our YouTube channel is skyrocketing, but we’re not following that – yet.

The trouble of course is knowing what is the right metric. The sane place to start is assume we’re always rewarding the wrong metric and backtrack from there. Finding the right metrics might be near impossible, but at least we can continuously question what we measure and recognize as a “win.” There is no way to win this. Outcomes are complex, and they need to be built upon concrete outputs, which are measurable. More often than not pursuing the output exclusively goes against achieving the outcome – the problem is deep.

I know of no other way than questioning again and again:

What are we trying to achieve? What is our ideal, even if it feels impossible.

Who are we doing this for? Why should they care?

What is the one thing we can change right now?

If we change this, how will this impact the rest of what we do?

If we add one more metric on this, how will this impact the people who do the work?

There is nothing people hate more than see their efforts go unnoticed and unrewarded while someone else’s gaming the system gets praised and compensated. Metrics and rewards really matter, even though we tend to shrug them off, or not feel legitimate to challenge how the system is set up. Too few metrics, and people do silly things in following simplistic objectives. Too many metrics and they get confused and pick their own. The only way to finesse this conundrum is regularly go back to the causal model underlying the metrics and test its assumptions. Metrics are proxies for what we really want to do – are they doing the job well? Or are they leading us the wrong way?


I don’t know about you, but when on a holiday it takes me days before I can stop worrying about work, and then just when I’m finally relaxing and enjoying the break, it’s time to go back. It can be tempting to just keep on plodding and postpone that long weekend with friends or that boring holiday at the beach.

Yet, if you consider the six previous boss mistakes, in most situations you’ll find that if you feel calm and cheerful, you won’t blunder. If you feel tired and irritable, chances are you’ll slip up. As simple as that.

Take more breaks, more often. It’ll make you a better boss.

I don’t mean to be a bad boss. Actually, I don’t mean to be any sort of boss at all. But if I take responsibility for outcomes, I realize that I am bossing people around. By looking at it that way, it seems obvious that it’s hard to see that one is bad bossing. You don’t need to be a bad person to become a bad boss – just not to be careful. It’s very easy to see that if you feel overwhelmed, or pressed for time, or frustrated with all the ways things have of not working out, you lose sight of the mission, the team, each person’s competence, how they face obstacles and how to talk to them about it. All you need to become a bad boss is to drop your guard and for an hour or a day, stop working at being a good boss.


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