The Cause of Bad Followers

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Photo by Ian Boyd. Available at

Do you have “bad followers” on your team? Have some of your people slowed work or made intentional errors? Do they put in less than maximum effort? Are they claiming unneeded sick days? Are they apathetic about solving workplace problems? These are serious issues that create a negative work environment and even infect the morale and work ethic of good followers. You’ve probably tried any number of approaches to fix the problem and still can’t quite figure out the cause. But have you considered looking in the mirror?

It’s not always the case, but research from the University of Florida found that in many of these situations, the cause is actually a bad boss. If you’re having trouble with your people, you just might need to step back and take a serious look at how your own leadership contributes to the problem. A book by Robert Sutton, Ph.D., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” (Business Plus, 2010) explores this issue. Sutton’s topic is poignant, pointing out that more than 90% of U.S. employees have at least one boss (I argue that every U.S. worker has at least one boss). So, whether you have a boss or are a boss (or both), understanding what a good boss is and being able to detect bad bosses is critical—especially if you are the bad boss.

When I was in college, I worked for a good boss for about two years. Dan was the owner and manager of a Christian book and music store on the edge of downtown Fargo, ND. Dan probably didn’t think about it, but he taught me so much about character and leadership simply through his integrity. His values as a follower of Christ were evident in how he managed the store, took care of the employees, and served the community. He was a humble man who gave me, just a kid, a lot of responsibility and was patient when I messed up. I never talked with Dan about it, but I am sure he had no illusion of actually being in control of very much. Yet, I am equally sure that I and the other employees looked at Dan as being in control and we had confidence in his leadership. He was a good boss.

Sometime after college, I worked for a bad boss for about two years. “Steve” was the owner of a budding enterprise that showed quite a bit of promise but ultimately failed, I believe largely because he was a bad boss. Steve also taught me a lot about leadership, but through his negative example. Steve’s approach was almost exactly opposite Dan’s. To the degree that Dan let go of control (and thus created the illusion of control), Steve grabbed control (and thus lost it). Steve checked up on virtually every aspect of his employees’ work and on more than one occasion manipulated business relationships to enhance his company’s image and financial position. By trying to seize control he lost it. The employees did not see Steve as a man in charge of his company—it was in charge of him.

This issue of control is just one of several dynamics that Sutton explores in his book, “Good Boss, Bad Boss.” I believe how bosses handle control is one of the greatest determinants of their employees’ morale and performance, and thus the success of the team.

Are you a good boss or a bad boss? You aren’t sure? Share this article with some trusted employees and start talking about the issues.

2 thoughts on “The Cause of Bad Followers

  1. having been in the corporate world in manufacturing,my experience has been that bad followers allowed to remain on your payroll are like leaving a rotting apple in with the good ones

    • I agree. Bad followers can be like a cancer and they need to be cut out. However, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a leader complain about a “bad follower” only to find out after investigation, the leader had a significant role to play in the bad situation. I’ve seen this all too many times as an employee and in my coaching work.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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