The Inmates Run the Prison: Reframing “The Bad Boss” Problem

Whether in the workplace, politics, or sports, the barrier to success is often defined as a “bad boss” behavior problem. In fact, the “Bad Boss” problem can manifest in almost any environment you find yourself in. But is this ubiquitous gripe the heart of the issue? Perhaps not.

What the “Boss” complaint reveals is that the most common consulting problems deal with the human system. No matter how technical the assignment, issues are often thought of as “presenting problems”…what seems obvious, the “low hanging fruit.”

Beware: this may be a trap.

When there are no good answers, the problem is likely with the question.

In other words, the root problem is often with the way the problem is defined or the way the question is framed. This is where the client gets stuck and where you might get stuck as well.

Once a better question is asked, it can reshape their entire understanding of the issue and open a path to an alternate future.

So how can this classic problem be reframed? Here are some thoughts on how to deal with the human system rather than just the presenting problem.

The Presenting Problem: The Boss is Bad

The team feels helpless and distressed and identifies the problem as a tyrannical boss. The boss is too controlling, plays favorites, doesn’t communicate enough, controls too much–you name it. This issue is known to surface at every level of an organization–even executives complain of being controlled by others.

If You Acted On This Definition

By focussing on the problem as described above, you might be inclined to find the boss a coach (or gently suggest they take advantage of employee assistance program benefit and speak to a therapist), submit them to the rigors of a 360-degree assessment, and pray that the boss changes their bad habits.

Reframing The “Bad Boss” Problem

As long as the presenting problem is narrowly framed around dealing with the boss, then the team unit essentially has no agency and is rendered useless in creating better working relationships.

But remember: the inmates run the prison. The deeper problem is that the members of the team do not support each other.

Human beings can’t change other human beings, but they can work together to co-create an environment where individual choices are respected and where the impact of their decisions on the team is taken into account.

If members of a team support each other in public, they can handle any boss.

Here’s what team support looks like: if one member confronts the boss in a meeting, the others have to affirm their support verbally–no staying silent or giving support after the conversation has ended. This reframes the problem by acknowledging the innate freedom of the team, and accepting the power to act is in their hands.

bad boss cannot succeed against a supportive team
Public Team Support

If the boss isn’t bossing well, then the team isn’t teaming well.

To act within a frame of ownership [powerful agency] the team has to:

  1. Overcome its sense of caution as employees. This is choosing to act within the freedom that the team possesses to frame a better social contract for the good of the unit as a whole, including the boss.
  2. Meet independently. You must decide what is required to get the work done. Consider these questions: What alternate future does the team desire to build? What commitments is the team willing to make to bring this into reality?
  3. Bring it up to the boss with the whole team present. This is essential to creating a supportive team structure. Be sure that everyone is at the table to avoid a perception that “not everyone is on board,” giving way for the possibility of blame to start all over again.

This may feel like mutiny and knowledge workers may hesitate at this idea. So help them get over it. The payoff is that creating a supportive team will go a long way to dealing with the underlying issues that perpetuate the “Bad Boss” scenario.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 393-394]