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The Worst Boss Competition, Episode I

Years ago a friend of mine, let's call her Daria, asked me if she could vent about her frustrations with her boss. She'd reached her wits end and needed an outlet. "Of course," I said, "let's hear it."

Peter (not his real name) was the manager of a local big box store where Daria worked. He was a quiet guy with a very hands-off leadership style. In fact, it was rare that Daria ever saw him in person for more than a minute or two at a time. I wondered how so little interaction could create such an emotional reaction, but it quickly became clear.

"He doesn't listen," Daria told me. "And I'm pretty sure he's technically breaking the law."

Worst Boss Ever?

You see, Daria is disabled. She lives with a couple different conditions that cause chronic pain and limit her ability to perform certain tasks. Peter was aware of this when he hired her. And yet he continuously ignored the things Daria had told him she couldn't do. He repeatedly scheduled her to work in the store's warehouse despite her telling him that doing so made her conditions worse. Whenever she worked a shift there, she ended up having to leave early because her body would give up on her, something that caused Peter to become visibly frustrated with her.

"As if that weren't enough," Daria said, "do you remember when my uncle died a little while back?"

I told her I did.

"When I told Peter that I would need to take a week off to go to another state for his funeral and apologized for the short notice, he huffed at me, rolled his eyes, and told me that this was incredibly inconvenient. I was honestly scared he was going to fire me for that."

Sadly, Daria's experience isn't unique. I've heard many similar stories over the years of people getting frustrated with their bosses. It seems particularly ubiquitous in shift work, but I've heard just as many stories from people who work in offices. And I've heard leaders worry about turning into a boss their people resent.

So how do you avoid becoming a contestant in the Worst Boss Ever competition?

Start with empathy. Believe it or not, empathy is good for business.

The leader's actions set the tone for the entire team. How you treat your employees directly influences how they treat each other and your customers. When the boss doesn't have empathy for their employees, the employees don't have patience for each other or for customers.

I'm sure it must have been frustrating for Peter to have to make accommodations for a disabled employee. But if he had remembered his employees were humans, with all the limitations and emotions that come with that, his response might have been better.

Having compassion and understanding for Daria's circumstances would have led him to schedule her in ways that her body could handle. He wouldn't have assigned her tasks she wasn't capable of completing. And he might have just asked, "How are things going?" once in a while. Those few changes would have greatly improved his standing in Daria's eyes.

"It wasn't the best job," Daria told me years later, "but I wouldn't have been so desperate to get out of there if the people weren't so miserable and Peter so hard to deal with."

Empathy means you model for your team how you want them to treat others. Remember that your staff have a whole life going on outside of the office. They have their good days and their bad days just like everyone else. Having a little understanding when things aren't great will go a long way to making sure you don't end up a contender for the World's Worst Boss world champion title.

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