August 26, 2013


We Can Learn A Lot From The Worst Managers We Ever Had

posted in Coaching, Leadership

worst managers

Recently, I asked a room full of nearly 100 first-time managers about the worst managers they ever had, “How many of you have had a manager who was so wonderful that he or she became a mentor to you?”

I was knocked out that most of them raised their hands.

“You are among the fortunate ones,” I told them. (Ordinarily, when I ask a room full of first-time managers that question, less than half of them raise their hands.)

Then I asked, “What did you learn from your mentor that you carry with you, and that has helped make you the manager you are today?”

I heard enthusiastic stories about mentors who brought people under their wings, who confided in them, who shared their thought processes on difficult decisions, who included them in high-level meetings, and who honestly cared about them and their future.

Then, I asked, “How many of you have had a manager who was a complete and utter jerk – someone who you swore you would never be like?”

(I’ve always believed that any good question reversed is an equally good question, especially when it comes to your worst managers.)

So, I added, “What did you learn from that jerk that you carry with you today – and that you’ve promised yourself you will never be like as a manager?

And the room became electric.

People were sharing their fervor, commitment, angst and passion.

First, someone said they worked for a jerk that was demanding and moody. And took his irritable temperament out on everyone.

Then, someone said she worked for a woman who pumped everyone on the staff for their ideas, then the jerk repackaged them and presented them to management as her ideas.

And someone said he worked for a jerk who would blame things on everyone on his team, while accepting no responsibility for himself.

Then, it seemed like everyone was chiming in. The room became clamorous.

They started tripping over each other, apologizing for interrupting as they ardently recounted stories about being treated shabbily by their jerk of a boss.

apples and oranges

And I was bowled over.

I realized, as I said to them, that they had just helped me discover something quite amazing.

It is ironic.

But we often learn more from people who we do not want to be like, from the jerks of the world, than we do from those who have our best intentions in mind.

Or maybe it’s not that we learn more from them. Maybe it’s just that we remember them more. And we still feel the passion of wanting not to be like them.

We carry with us the commitment we made to ourselves of wanting to be the exact opposite of them. Of not wanting – in any way, shape or form – for anyone to ever vaguely confuse us with them. So we carry their negative messages with us.

Deep inside.

Embedded in our subconscious.

And we insist, with every fiber of our body, we swear that we will not be like them.

To the universe, we shout, “No!”

And in that ‘no,’ we affirm a ‘yes’ to ourselves.

So, here’s to all the jerks we’ve had as bosses.

And to all they taught us.

About ourselves.

Thank You.

You absolute jerks!


by Patrick Sweeney,  Caliper President

by Patrick Sweeney,
Caliper President

22 Comments on “We Can Learn A Lot From The Worst Managers We Ever Had”


Lucy Hone

Great post Patrick. What you describe characterises our “negativity bias” very graphically. Humans tend to attend to, attune to, and dwell on the negative much more than the positive: we are hard-wired to do so, because failing to pay attention to our negative emotions is of course maladaptive! In contrast, we are not so quick to notice the good and have to intentionally cultivate this habit. Research shows that both are equally adaptive in the end. Thanks for sharing this with me, Lucy


Peter Smith


Nice blog.

You may know that there exists a not-too-complimentary expression that people in Boston use to describe rude drivers, they are called Massholes.

I’ve long asserted that there are no rude drivers but there are plenty of rude people who drive. There is, I believe an important distinction. They don’t enter their cars as civil and decent people only to become nasty…they were already that way and their driving reflects who they are in and out of the car.

To that end, are these jerk managers jerks before they enter the workplace or does the culture create and/or validate and encourage the monster behavior? Or is it a little of both?

Keep up the good work!


Kathy Snyder

Very thought provoking. This can apply to many areas! When I was pre-student teaching I had a very “old school” (who happened to be both aloof and boring) supervising teacher to learn from. I learned mostly about the kind of teacher I would never want to be!


Marc Wachtfogel, Ph.D.

Thanks, Patrick…Great article!!! – Marc


Richard Lawrence

As always, good stuff!


Gisele Mogan

Thanks, again, for sharing a wonderful blog! Loved it!


Claudia Timbo

Patrick, I enjoyed this lesson! I had a partner who was a real jerk! Learned lots…Claudia


John Artise

Good stuff, again, Patrick!


T.K. Miller

Love it.


Laurel Ditson, SPHR

Could the corollary be this? All those times I have let myself down, by doing exactly what I swore I would never do as a leader, or failing for no reason except my own self-service got in my way so I was unable to be of service to others…could it be that
I was, in an odd way, a better leader in those times because of what I taught my team? Could there be a silver lining in those awful moments of “being human” and missing the mark that were actually teachable moments for them and for me?
While it is never my goal to be an awful manager, I know I have landed in that category at times, and I know I am my own worst critic. Perhaps this view will let me stop beating myself up and move me forward, aiming to be the coach and leader with the positive examples for my team and colleagues.
Just a thought!


Chester Elton

“Even the worst managers can teach us something! Great insight.


Bryan Biga

I enjoyed reading that. Thanks for sharing. It is so true.


Joseph Sharoff

Very good article. I think being a manager is more difficult today than ever.
Good read,
Thank you


Ellen Heffes

Great concept, Patrick. And, how true for me, too. I know I learned much about what “not to do” from the president I worked with (in a small company) when I first started working. I also learned much about business from him, however, so it was a great experience. It’s important, I would think, as people grow their careers to be fully aware of their own actions so they do not inadvertently become the manager they do not want to be.
Thanks, Ellen


Helene Finizio

This is great. Thanks for sharing!


Sasha Majerovsky

Thank you!


Andy Rich

Hey Patrick
this is so real it is not funny. I have not only learned a tremendous amount of what not to do… I use it as a point of reflection to give myself the jerk test from the perspective of my direct reports and colleagues. I find myself guilty too often. I remember the nightmares well and they reign me in to reality.
Thanks for your thoughts,


Brendan Lally

Good read. Interesting point of view.


Paula Davis-Laack

That’s a great article. From the time I graduated from law school thru today, I’ve had exactly 1 boss I’d like to emulate and the rest have been somewhere between so-so and positively awful. And yes, I’ve learned tons from the jerks!!


Susan Stern

Fantastic article! Working for a jerk is the best crash course in how not to treat people.


Neelam Prashad

Thank you, Mr. Sweeney! I never really thought of it in this light before, but it couldn’t have been any truer.


Doreen mcbride

You’re right.

I worked for a jerk of a headmistress who the staff called Jaws! Jaws was with obsessed saving money and her proudest boast was of buying, and keeping on a shelf her study, one sample of every toilet roll on the market. She counted the sheets in each and decided which one offered best value for money, which she had installed i all of the school’s toilets.. I annoyed her by asking if it would not be more economical to use the toilet paper she stored rather than leave it sitting in her study! I also asked her what her original expenditure was and how long did it take for payback! And don’t start me on her thoughts about the photocopier! I liked the school, the pupils and the staff were amazing but I left after 18 months.

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