Episode 352: Michelle Gibbings. Bad Boss, Good Boss

Episode Summary

We chat about her latest book, “Bad Boss: What To Do If You Work For One, Manage One, Or Are One”, about Michelle’s experiences with bad bosses and the challenging moment when she realized she had become one. We also discuss how to turn the workplace into a happier space in the post-pandemic scenario, what employees are looking for, and the best way to generate a genuine connection with them.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We are delighted to have an international guest with us today. She says that bad bosses aren’t always bad people, and it takes work at every level to create an environment where everyone can flourish. I can tell we’re going to have fun today in this podcast. So, if you dare to examine your own role in your current situation and take swift action, you will gain better relationships, accelerated outcomes, and greater career satisfaction. Please welcome with me, Michelle Gibbings. 

Michelle Gibbings Hi, Steve, how are you? 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, so good. And we’re so thrilled to have Michelle here all the way from Melbourne, Australia. 

Michelle Gibbings It’s my absolute honor, and it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you too. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you. How are things in Melbourne today? 

Michelle Gibbings Well, we’re in spring at the moment, which is one of Melbourne’s most glorious times of the year. So, if your listeners haven’t been to Melbourne, you should come on down, it’s a beautiful city. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. It is an amazing place. Well, before we get started today, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Michelle. She is bringing back the “happy to workplace” culture. If it’s ever been needed, we live in a day in a time when it really is needed. It’s been disrupted so much and so many changes, so much pressure on businesses, and it’s not an easy environment really. She is the author of three books and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams, and organizations create successful workplaces where people thrive and progress is accelerated. Earlier books: ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’, and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate your Career’ are just a couple. I’m just looking at this new book that she’s done. I’m going to ask her a question, but then I’m going to come back to this book. Her latest book is “Bad Boss: What to Do If You Work for One, Manage One Or Are One.” We’re going to have fun talking about that subject. But first of all, Michelle, please tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you. And really what you’re doing today. 

Michelle Gibbings I have had an unusual career. I originally started in politics. I wasn’t a politician, but I worked for a politician as a speechwriter and policy advisor. And then I went into a corporate career — so, I worked in the mining sector, I worked in financial services, and I worked across many disciplines. So, I was a company spokesperson, I worked on large-scale change programs, I was an advisor to a CEO, and I was also a head of compliance, so I worked in risk functions. The real turning point for me was my last corporate gig wasn’t a fun place to be. And I went on a meditation retreat, and it was really at that meditation retreat, and I still remember the conversation — I came home and I said to my husband, “I’m done!” And he goes, “Done with what?” And I said, “Done with corporate.” And he goes, “Okay, what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m gonna open a business.” He goes, “In what?” I said, “I’ve got no idea.” Now, that was eight years ago. And clearly, I have a very clear plan, which I’ve developed over those years as to what I’m doing. And the work is very focused and it bridges my love of learning and also my corporate experience. So, I do a lot of work with organizations and leaders, really helping them build the right environment where everyone can come to work and be their best and can really flourish. And having worked as an exec in corporate, I understand the challenges that they face. So, yes, I’ve got all the theoretical and sort of academic piece that backs that up, but I’m also talking from practical experience. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, wonderful. Wow, what a background. 

Michelle Gibbings Yeah, it’s been fun. One of my girlfriends once said to me, “Oh, Michelle, your career terrifies me. You make these seemingly random jumps into things that you don’t know.” And I go, “But that’s what’s fun is it’s this love of learning.” And I absolutely come from a philosophy that you can never stop learning. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, amen. Well, that’s the spirit of becoming your best, right? 

Michelle Gibbings Absolutely. And I think when you’ve got curiosity and a love of learning, you’re not daunted by the challenge. You look at the challenge and go, “I don’t know that, but gee, it’s gonna be fun figuring it out.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Good for you. That’s a wonderful attitude. Well, tell us, Michelle, a little bit about your book, Bad Boss. What inspired you to write this? And what’s an overview of what’s in the book? And then we’re going to talk and really drill down in. 

Michelle Gibbings It’s interesting. The initial genesis of it came from a conversation with my brother-in-law. So, I finished writing my second book, and he goes, “What’s your third book?” And I said, “I haven’t actually thought about it yet.” He goes, “I know, you should run a book called Bastard Bosses. Everyone’s had a bastard that they’ve worked for.” And I remember chatting to my publisher, and they went, “Look, I don’t think we can actually publish a book with a title like that. But maybe if you could tone it down a bit, we could.” And then when I started working through it and really thinking about it. They talk about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and it’s a bit like that with bosses because it’s really easy to characterize someone as a bad boss from your perspective. And I look at it and I go, “I’ve been in all the positions. I’ve worked for a bad boss. I’ve been a bad boss, which I’m happy to talk about. And also, I’ve managed bad bosses.” And that’s where the book comes from, is it’s really those three lenses and looking at it, but it’s not looking at it from a place of judgment, it’s looking at it from a place of curiosity and going, “What’s really going on for you? And what’s going on for the other person? And what are you doing to step up? And what role are you playing and contributing to the dynamic?” So, it’s not walking away and saying, “People aren’t accountable for their actions.” They’re absolutely accountable. But it’s also making sure that everyone is playing a role so that the workplace can be a really good place to work. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love the vision because that’s where we want to be. Because when you have an environment that’s fun and a winning work environment, then people can take off, they can excel, and they can create this magic and they create high-performing teams and organizations. So, I love your focus on that and the envision. Well, let’s just talk about what’s a bad boss.  

Michelle Gibbings It’s almost like that four by four, the two by two matrix, and it’s really digging in and understanding what’s their focus? Is it all about them? Or are they actually quite selfish or selfless? So, where are they focusing their energy? And to what extent are they aware that they’re a bad boss? So, are they unaware? Or are they aware? And when you do that analysis, you can then work out where the type of boss’s position. And the reason I did this is often when people think about a bad boss, they think about someone who’s mean, who’s nasty, who’s a bully. But I would also say you can be a bad boss and have really good intent, but you’re a bad boss because you’re disorganized, you don’t delegate effectively, and you don’t give clear instructions. So, that’s what I characterize as a person who’s the believer; they believe they’re a really good boss and they genuinely care for their team, but they are ineffective as leaders, and therefore, unaware of the impact they’re having; they’re not delegating effectively; they’re not having the tough conversations. That is quite different from what I characterize as either the mercenary or the illusionist. The mercenary is someone, it is all about them. It’s my way or the highway. They are not interested in learning or understanding or even being aware that they’ve got any ineffective leadership characteristics because they see themselves as perfect. But then you’ve also got the illusionist; they’re aware that they manipulate; they’re aware that they’re ineffective as a leader, but they actually don’t care. It’s all about them. So, those three types of bosses, whether you’re the believer, the mercenary, or the illusionist, there are different characteristics, and therefore, different strategies that if you’re working for someone like that, that you need to apply to try and work through and go, “Can I make this environment work for me?” 

Steve Shallenberger: So, the three are, one more time, the first?  

Michelle Gibbings The believer. 

Steve Shallenberger: Tell us about that one again. I got the other to right off: the mercenary and the illusionist. Tell us about the believer.  

Michelle Gibbings The believer is someone that they believe they’re a good boss, and they genuinely want to do the right thing. I’ve worked for someone like this genuinely nice person, really lovely to work with, absolute nightmare of a boss: disorganized and dysfunctional in terms of how they would delegate tasks. So you would always be playing catch up because things would hit your desk that should have been given to you about a month ago, but were given to you the day they would due. So, they’re the sort of person who are actually not focused on themselves, they’re genuinely trying to focus on the team; they’re just unaware that they’ve got deficiencies in how they execute their leadership responsibilities. 

Steve Shallenberger: I like the fact that you’ve identified what defines a bad boss. In other words, from the different dimensions, and each one of those that you talked about, can drive people really nuts and be very frustrating and aggravating and cause them to not want to be there. 

Michelle Gibbings Absolutely. But they also have different impacts. So, if you look at someone like the believer, you can work around that. So, when I worked with this person who was in the believer category, and then people would say, “Michelle, that wasn’t your responsibility.” But this was my strategy for making it work. I took over his inbox. So, this is back in the days when you actually had those physical intrays in people’s offices, and now everything is electronic. And I’d just walk into his office and go through his intray, work out which of the things in there were actually for me, I’d pick them up, and I’d say to him, “I’ve got these. Is that okay?” And he’d go, “Yeah, great!” So, what I was doing is I was adapting my behavior to cope with the fact that I knew he was disorganized. Now, that’s very different to working for someone who’s a mercenary, who can victimize, can bully, and can intimidate. And in that environment—and once again, I’ve worked with someone like this, I’ve kind of worked across the spectrum—you really have to sit back and go, “What’s the impact this is having on my mental health and well-being?” Because those types of bosses, you can work with them for a while, but you have to be really careful because, over time, their type of behavior can rub off on you. But at the same time, they’re often people who have a lot of power and you can get a real kick along in your career if you can stick it out for a while. So the person that I worked for was absolutely pivotal in helping my career be successful. But there came a point where I could no longer successfully function in that environment because it was too hard on me personally. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s what I was going to ask you about next. What do you do if you think you have a bad boss? What do you do with that situation? And I suppose it depends on the type of boss it is, how do you bring that up and how do you create a better situation? And then because a boss can be intimidating sometimes, especially if it’s a mercenary or illusionist, the believer might be more open. So, how would you approach that, Michelle? 

Michelle Gibbings Absolutely, you’re right. The believer is someone, because they genuinely care, you can sit down and have a conversation with them and say, “I love working with you, but there are some things that we could do that I’m seeing that I think could make this more effective. Are you open to that conversation?” Now a mercenary and illusionist are going to go, “No, just not interested because I already think I’m awesome. So, don’t tell me I’m not awesome.” So, with both the mercenary and the illusionist, firstly, really examine your own behavior: Are you contributing something to that dynamic that is making that dynamic worse? Secondly, go, “What am I getting out of this working situation in terms of how it helps my career? And therefore is it worth sticking it out?” Because sometimes it is. But if it’s not, you need to then really sit back and go, “Okay, this isn’t helping my career, it’s also impacting my mental health and well-being. Is it time for me to vote myself off the island and go somewhere else? And therefore, what does that look like?” So, it’s really getting clear around the context, the environment, the impacts, and then working through options. And also sometimes you can find ways to work around them because you can find ways to minimize your interaction with them and build coalitions with other people in the organization who also have power, who can minimize the impact that your direct boss has on you. 

Steve Shallenberger: And what do you do if you’re accused of being a bad boss? What’s your recommendation there? 

Michelle Gibbings Well, I can talk from experience. So, I would have been quite early in my management career and my boss, who is a good boss, pulls me aside and says to me, “Michelle, I get you’re ambitious and I get you want to do well, and that’s fantastic.” But she said, “At the end of the day, when you move on to something else, no one’s going to remember the work you did.” And I think she was channeling Maya Angelou when she said this. She said, “People are only going to remember how you made them feel. And your role as the leader is to help people get to places that they can’t get to. But for the fact that they’re working for you, you need to focus more on the development piece.” And I had been very focused on tasks, very task-driven. And what I found was that flipping and focusing more on the people, their individual needs, what they needed for me, and how I could really nurture and grow them, the work just happened. So, it was really for me being open to what’s the gap between how you see yourself as a leader and how people actually experience you as a leader. So, if you get feedback, if there’s an inkling that perhaps you’re not all that effective, really dig in and be open to that because it’s very hard for us to really see how people experience us if we’re not open to listening and hearing their feedback. 

Steve Shallenberger: If you’re accused of being a bad boss, would it be important to read your book? 

Michelle Gibbings I would think so. I would also say, and I do recommend this in the book, there are some really helpful 360-degree feedback tools that are out there. And they can be really instructive to use to give you that hard data, particularly if you’re the sort of person who’s fact-driven, like you go, “Oh, I don’t want anecdotes, I need hard data.” Well, if you want hard data, do a 360. One of those ones, it’s almost scientifically constructed so that you know you’re getting data that’s got rigor attached to it. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve worked with a lot of 360 feedback assessments. The managers really have to be mentally prepared and understand how to be ready for the data so that they can accept it with a positive frame of reference. Otherwise, it can be a serious ego enema and not very fun. So, they have to be prepared to really get after it with a positive point of view. 

Michelle Gibbings I agree, and I also think that’s where the role of someone like you or me as an executive coach that actually help them work through it because I would never say to someone, “Go and a 360 by yourself, and then sit in the corner and read the results.” Because that’s just going to end in tears for everybody involved. You really do need someone who can help you work through, one, what’s your initial reaction? And then dig in why are you reacting to that? Yes, to your point, what’s the ego? What’s the part of you that’s being triggered by this? Now, how do you move into that space of the wise one where you can really sit through and deliberately pull it apart and go, “What is this showing me?” And I’ve also said to people, context really matters. We’re really impacted by the environment that we’re in. The 360 tool that I use, and I had it done on me when I was working in corporate, and then I did it again when I was learning to use the tool in my consulting work. And it was interesting because the consultant who was doing my debrief said to me, “Wow! Your results are transformational. We don’t normally see these shifts so incredible.” I said, “Hey, think about the context.” The first one was done when I was working in financial services, highly political environment, to this one where I’m working for myself, and my clients love me, and the team that I’m working with loves me. I said, “It’s totally different dynamics.” So, I often say to people, really look at the context that you’re working in. And it’s really important to challenge yourself: Is the context that I’m in helping me be better? Or is it actually the context dragging me backwards? Because if the context isn’t working for you, that’s one of the things for you as the boss to go, “Hmm, maybe I’m not in the right environment.” 

Steve Shallenberger: I actually had a friend call earlier today. He is the division manager of a large major corporation, and he has an employee that’s over in office, a relatively new manager. He has been with the company for over a decade, so tried and true, but is new as an office manager. So, some of his subordinates—which is a term I don’t really use, but it describes the direct report relationship—are complaining that sometimes he is a little rude and he’s sharp with them, doesn’t seem to have time for them, and doesn’t seem to teach them as much as is needed. What would you recommend in a situation like that? Because his direct report was saying, “I want to help this person.” How could his manager best help him? What would you say? 

Michelle Gibbings He sounds stressed. That’s my immediate reaction. And look, I’ve never met him, but I think it’s really important as the boss’s boss to really sit down and talk with him and understand, what do you need for me, what’s going on for you? Because sometimes when people move into a new leadership role, they’re overwhelmed by the responsibility, they’re not given a lot of support around that step up. Sometimes it’s still doing their old role because the old role hasn’t been back-filled yet. So, it’s really as that senior leader working through, what’s his capacity of the person to learn to really understand their behavior and shift? And how do I then, as that senior leader, help coach them and work through that with them? And not done from a punitive thing, but really done from a point of view of I really want to help you succeed. And I often find it curious, when I’m brought into work with senior leaders, I’ve had occasions where people have said to me, “Am I being performance managed?” And I’m like, “No!” The fact that the organization is paying for you to get coaching is a sign that they value you. And I really think we need to make sure that leaders see coaching and that support as something that is worthwhile and is not as punitive and “This is the next step towards the exit door.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, reassure him, and then go to work, and help him out because we want to bring out the best in everybody we work with. 

Michelle Gibbings Absolutely. And it’s really important to ask questions. I think we can very quickly jump, even when I said, “He sounds stressed,” I made assumptions that that’s what he sounds like. Maybe it’s not stress, it could be something else. Is it that he doesn’t have the right team around him? Is it that there’s too much workload and there’s not enough capacity? So, as the leader, really getting curious about what’s going on? What are they seeing? What are they hearing? Are they getting enough support from you? And this is a series of conversations. It’s not just the one and done. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s good advice, good thoughts. I like that. So, Michelle, now that many, many employees are going back to the office, what are they looking for from their leaders?  

Michelle Gibbings I think what they’re looking for hasn’t changed, but it’s been elevated. The last couple of years, it’s been hard. And even this year, I think everyone thought that 2022 was going to be distinctly better than the last two years. Even 2022 has still had this element of uncertainty, it’s been a bit weird, it’s been a bit disjointed. And when you get down to tin tacks and really work out what employees want, they just want to feel valued and they want to feel respected. And I always reference a research that was done by Christine Porath, from Georgetown University. She did a lot of research looking at what is the number one thing that employees are looking for and it’s respect. And if you think about it, if you respect people, you take the time to understand them, you work out what their needs are, how you can support them, you really understand that the last couple of years have been challenging and have been challenging at all levels within the organization. And I also think people have missed their colleagues. I’ve seen relationships that used to be good have fractured, so there’s the extra effort that needs to be put into really reforming teams and reforming healthy relationships. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great advice. I’m just amazed, always, how fast things go, and we’re at the end of our podcasts already. 

Michelle Gibbings Well, I loved the conversation. You asked very good questions. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you, it’s been a delight. So you have so much experience in so many ways, I’d love to have you share with our listeners, any final tips that can help them in their careers as leaders and also dedicated employees. 

Michelle Gibbings There’s a couple of things, and I think this connects, it’s almost like the theme throughout this conversation. Never stop learning, always be curious and ask questions. And the one thing we didn’t touch on but I think is fundamental, particularly as leaders, it’s a hard job being a leader, but it’s a privilege. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege. That also means you need to take care of yourself. We don’t make good decisions when we’re tired. We don’t make good decisions when we’re stressed. So taking time out for self-care, exercise, sleeping well, meditation, eating, that’s not a luxury, that’s essential. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great advice. I’ve just been thinking, as we’ve been talking today, Michelle, how important leadership is in this whole process. So, if you’re a bad boss, don’t despair, leadership is making a decision and taking responsibility unilaterally to do something good about it and to get to a better place. That’s leadership. It’s not dependent upon how others feel or think or say, it comes from within. And Michelle has given some great advice today on assessments and gaining knowledge and reading books of how to move up the bar. And if you’re deploy in that situation, the same thing. That’s what leadership is. It’s saying, “Hold it. I’ll take responsibility. I’m going to control what I can control. I’m here to get things to a better place.” And Michelle actually gave a great example of that with the believer boss to help them be more effective. She went into his to-do boxes, project boxes and said, “This one, this one, and this one belongs to me. Let me jump in here and help it get to a better place.” So, that’s a big deal, and you’ve talked about a lot of that today. That’s what leadership does, right? 

Michelle Gibbings Absolutely. Brene Brown, when she defines a leader, she defines a leader not by hierarchy but by anyone who can actually see that there are things that can be done better, and then they take accountability to do that. And I often think we define leadership in too much of a hierarchical sense, and we all have the opportunity to lead, but in different facets and in different ways. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a good observation. Well, it has been a delight, Michelle, to have you on this show today. I love your thoughts, your ideas, the inspiration of getting a better place. We want to be good bosses, so we wish you the best and all that you’re doing. 

Michelle Gibbings Thank you. And thank you again for having me on. It’s been so much fun. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, it has. It’s been a delight. And we wish all of you the best who are listening today. It’s such an honor to have you with us and a privilege to be able to work together for all of us to try to get to a better place, to make the world a better place, to be happier, and have stronger relationships, and help our organizations be among the very best. So, to all of our listeners. We wish you the best today and every day. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Michelle Gibbings

Award Winning Author

Workplace Expert, Certified Dare to Lead Facilitator, Global Keynote Speaker

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