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4 types of bosses and how to deal with them

Before you rush to pass judgement and sentence on your boss, it pays to understand what drives them and their behaviour. Over my working life, I’ve come across four types of bosses. How they operate depends on their awareness of their impact, and the degree to which they care about that impact. And from my experience, bad bosses are usually out of their depth and struggling with a toxic environment that doesn’t bring out their best.

The Mercenary

With little to no awareness of their impact on others and caring primarily only about themselves, this boss operates in a bubble. They see themselves as all powerful and the smartest person in the room. It’s all me, me, me! They have little interest in other people or in improving, because they believe they already have this leadership thing ‘nailed’.

Their mantra: ‘Don’t get in the way of my success.’

Working for someone like this can be exceptionally challenging, because while you need to keep your head down, do the work and stay out of the firing line, you also need to not come across as weak. They see weakness as a character flaw and will use it against you. They won’t welcome feedback, so be careful of any comments that appear to undermine their superiority, yet be strong and confident in the way you interact with them.

The Believer

This type of boss isn’t a bad person; they just make an ineffective leader. With low self-awareness, they are largely oblivious of the negative impact they can have. In fact, they’ll often think they are doing a great job leading, because they genuinely care about their team and try to put the team first.

Their mantra: ‘Like me and be happy.’


Working for someone like this can be an opportunity for you to thrive once you find a way to work around their limitations. Seek to understand them and leverage ways to manage them. They are usually open to feedback, so you can talk to them about how you might better work together.

The Illusionist

This boss has a high awareness of their impact on others, and cares primarily about themselves. In many respects, they are worse than the mercenary, because they know the impact they are having, but either don’t care or just can’t find a way to change how they lead. They are good at managing up and can charm the pants off you, although when things go wrong you could find yourself under the bus.

Their mantra: ‘Make me look good.’

The more you make them look good, the more they will want you around. This can be good for your development and there can be opportunities. But remember, they don’t care that they don’t care, so you will be expendable and have a use-by date. Like the mercenary, they won’t welcome feedback, so be careful of any comments that might appear to undermine their superiority. Instead, ask questions about how you might better support them, while taking care of your own needs too.

The Liberator

With a deep awareness of their impact on others and a very caring attitude, the liberator always puts the team first. This is the ultimate good boss, and luckily there are many of them. This doesn’t mean they are perfect every single day, because that’s an unrealistic expectation. But they do care and they have self-awareness. Consequently, when they stuff up and make a mistake, they own it. They will support you and your career aspirations. They won’t just be nice and say what you want to hear. Instead, because they care, they will challenge you to do better and give you constructive, healthy feedback.

Their mantra: ‘Let’s work together productively.’

Working for someone like this is your opportunity to be your best. They are open to feedback and conversations, and you will learn much from them.

Which style do you think your boss exhibits?

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, working with global leaders to build workplaces where leaders and employees thrive and great things happen. This is an edited extract from her new book, ‘Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’ (published by Wiley). For more information about Michelle visit michellegibbings.com.

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